Like Bodyguard: A New Beginning, Underground is a recent British-made action film which wears its influences on its sleeve. An independent actioner made on a shoestring budget in the UK before Bodyguard, it’s a straight tournament film: twelve fighters backed by sneering plutocrats, high stakes, one winner, light on sporting conduct, all photographed in gritty low-budget, reality-TV style.
Our host, Fidel (Fidel Nanton) has gathered together six high-flyers with money to burn: each is offered the chance to back two martial artists, with the total to be split between the winning fighter and their patron. The fighters themselves are introduced as thumbnail sketches, each identified by a profession or characteristic, like the Homeless (Mark Strange), just released from prison and wanting to make a fresh start; the Foreigner (Liang Yang), in the UK from China and trying to earn money for his family; and the Priest (Glenn Salvage), who wants to put the money towards a homeless shelter. Most of the characters are very thinly drawn, although there are some nice little scenes developing a relationship between the Foreigner and the Delinquent (Beau Fowler).
The bulk of the running time, then, is given over to the action scenes: in dingy warehouses, car parks and back rooms the twelve of them face off until only one remains. There’s a lot to be said for the action: Director Chee clearly intended the film to be a showcase for British action talent, and quite a lot of effort has gone into choreographing and shooting the action scenes. The styles of the different fighters are not quite as differentiated as in Geochilmaru, a Korean film from a couple of years ago with a similar tournament structure, but the action itself is much better photographed and more intense. One other element that sets this film apart from just about every other tournament film I’ve seen is its refusal to pick a favourite: the characters are all given similar screen-time, and there’s no obvious lead character to follow or other subplots to resolve.
That is, perhaps, its weakest point as well. Because the little time available is spread so evenly between the characters and predominantly given over to the series of fights, it’s hard to become invested in the film. The brutality of some of the action is hard to reconcile with the brief flashback we’ve been shown of each character, and what little dialogue our supporting characters get (since our fighters have almost none at all) comes across as similarly theatrical and hollow. It’s a trade-off, though: adding more background and drama would mean cutting down the action scenes, which are so obviously Underground‘s reason for being. I do think that cutting a couple of fighters in favour of a bit more story would have made for a more enjoyable movie.
Nevertheless, it’s great to see talented actors and crew making action films without relying on extensive wirework and CGI, particularly outside Hong Kong and Thailand, where realism has become a selling point for martial arts films over the last few years.