Aug 28, 2002 at 12:00 am

Boxing and prison shows and Mike Tyson’s 1992 rape conviction are all on Undisputed’s fight card. This contender for a big box-office purse weighs in with a heavier mood than any of the four Rocky pugilistic fairy tales. But writer-director Walter Hill’s dazzling cinematic footwork can’t give Undisputed’s underdog, Monroe Hutchens (Wesley Snipes), the heroic punch of Rocky’s “Italian Stallion.” It’s not even in the same class of bare-knuckled hyperrealism as a boxing subplot in one season of HBO’s prison series, “Oz.”

Hutchens earns his place in a maximum-security hall of shame, Sweetwater Prison, after a moment of rage surges through his professionally trained fists. They become murder weapons outside of the ring. Inside Sweetwater, he becomes the penitentiary’s undisputed boxing champion. Hutchens channels his anger into sanctioned cage matches, sublimates it into his Zen-like discipline of building elaborate structures with toothpicks and glue, and wears the rest on his face like a hard mask.

Hill and co-writer David Giler (Alien 3) don’t choose to consistently lead with their equivocal hero, though. George “the Iceman” Chambers (Ving Rhames) lands most of the points in the second act. Chambers has earned his nickname by not just defeating his opponents, but by practically killing them, putting them “on ice.” He’s the undisputed world heavyweight champ — until he ends up in Sweetwater on a six-to-eight-year sentence for the rape of a young black woman. Chambers is basically an older, baritone take on Tyson’s incarcerated years.

One prison isn’t big enough for two champions (one prison isn’t big enough for the Iceman’s ego). The title of undisputed champ comes to the head of a high-testosterone knuckles-up dispute.

Rhames seemingly dominates this fight picture in screen time and nuanced emotional range. But this is no Oscar contender. Undisputed enters the box-office competition as middleweight entertainment.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].