Release Date(s)1993 (July 25, 2023)
Studio(s)Action Star Pictures/Filmswell International (Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: See Below
- Audio Grade: See Below
- Extras Grade: A
- Overall Grade: A
In the annals of action cinema, there are legendary martial artists like Jackie Chan who successfully made the leap from Hong Kong into the American market, and even a few American martial artists like Chuck Norris who made appearances in Hong Kong films. Yet none of them had the circuitous career of Cynthia Rothrock, an American martial arts champion who nevertheless cut her cinematic teeth in Hong Kong before returning to America (often accompanied by Hong Kong crews). She gained some attention during the Eighties and Nineties, when B action movies proliferated thanks to the explosion of the home video market, but she’s never really gotten the credit that she deserves. She garnered some unexpected notoriety in the internet age when the final fight scene from her 1993 effort Undefeatable went viral—search for “worst fight scene ever” on YouTube, and it’s the first hit that comes up. While any publicity may be good publicity, it’s still a shame that Rothrock isn’t better remembered for the important role she played in the development of the martial arts genre in America. It’s also a shame that Undefeatable is only remembered for that fight scene, because the film as a whole is far more interesting and much weirder than that one moment might seem to indicate.
Undefeatable is essentially a Kumite serial killer movie, blending the illegal underground fight scene of Bloodsport with the sexualized murders of 10 to Midnight. The 1982 Chuck Norris vehicle Silent Rage had already mixed serial killers with marital arts, but in that case the fighting ended up taking a back seat to everything else. On the other hand, Undefeatable never forgets that it’s all about the martial arts first and foremost—although thanks to a memorably over-the-top performance by Don Niam as the fighter turned killer Stingray, the manhunt for the madman never gets overshadowed. Kristi Jones (Rothrock) is a waitress who does street fighting on the side in order to help put her sister Karen (Sunny David) through college. Meanwhile, Stingray (Naim) is a brutal underground fighter who loses it after his wife leaves him due to the encouragement of her psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Simmons (Donna Jason). He starts murdering women who remind him of his missing wife, drawing the attention of Detective Nick DiMarco (John Miller), who happens to be well-acquainted with Kristi due to having broken up one of her illegal street fights. Inevitably, all of their lives end up colliding, and so Kristi teams up with Nick in order to track down the elusive Stingray. Undefeatable also stars Gerald Klein, Emille Davazac, Hang Yip Kim, and Richard Yuen.
If some of those names are unfamiliar, that’s due to the strange confluence of elements that brought Undefeatable to life. It’s really a Hong Kong film directed by Godfrey Ho (under the pseudonym Godfrey Hall). Ho ended up shooting Honor & Glory (aka Zong heng tian xia) and Undefeatable back-to-back in Maryland after becoming acquainted with Grandmaster Tai Yim and the local Tai Yim Kung Fu studio. Both films utilized students of Tai Yim as cast members, as well as various actors that Ho brought with him from Hong Kong (including, ironically enough, Rothrock herself). Undefeatable doesn’t just mix genres; it mixes pretty much everything else as well—it’s a Hong Kong movie made in America, starring an American actor who made her career in Hong Kong. It’s not really East meets West because any such lines barely existed here in the first place.
Since Ho also brought along his Hong Kong stunt crew, there are some pretty impressive stunts in Undefeatable, including a high fall from the second story of a parking garage onto the roof of a Ford Explorer (and from there to the ground). It’s possible that there was a thin gym mat on top of the SUV, but there’s nothing on the ground, and given the way that the suspension dips when he lands on top of the vehicle, that mat didn’t absorb much of the impact. The fights are all reasonably well-staged, although Ho’s propensity for shooting quickly means that some of the seams do show—this wasn’t a Jackie Chan film where they kept doing take after take until they got everything right. As far as the infamous final fight goes, well, it has to be seen to be believed. The fight itself isn’t bad at all, but between the actors constantly flexing (and posing) their well-oiled muscles and Naim chewing every piece of scenery that he could find, it’s not necessarily memorable in the positive sense of the term. Whatever the reasons, it’s still deservedly the stuff of legend.
Since Undefeatable was going to be a cross-market release, Ho shot additional footage for a Hong Kong version that was retitled Bloody Mary Killer (aka Cuī huā kuáng mó). There are more martial arts on display in the Hong Kong cut, especially in an alternate opening credits sequence that features Rothrock strutting her stuff for the camera, but the biggest addition was a subplot featuring Robin Shou (soon to gain attention as Liu Kang in 1995’s Mortal Kombat), as well as Ho himself in a rare onscreen appearance. Neither of them are in the English language cut at all, so to make room, a substantial amount of the American footage was deleted and replaced. Bloody Mary Killer is missing some key moments with Donna Jason, and it doesn’t really bother to set up either Rothrock or Naim’s characters at all. So Bloody Mary Killer isn’t necessarily better or more complete; it’s just different. It’s still interesting though, and a good reminder that the idea of creating different scenes for different markets is nothing new.
Cinematographer Philip J. Cook shot Undefeatable on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, matted to 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. This version uses a 4K scan of the original camera negative, which according to Vinegar Syndrome wasn’t in particularly good shape:
“The original negative to Undefeatable has experienced decades of poor handling and storage, resulting in substantial image damage mostly appearing in the form of thin vertical scratches. While every effort has been made to reduce this damage, some issues could not be resolved without the risk of introducing digital artifacting.”
That may not sound very promising, but while a few shots do indeed look weaker than the rest, this is still an impressive 4K presentation of the film. Most of the damage is limited to some light speckling and scratches, but they’re mild and relatively infrequent. (There’s also one shot that fluctuates so heavily that it borders on looking like a strobe effect.) Aside from those minor flaws, the image is razor-sharp, with well-defined textures like clothing, gravel, grass and other environmental details. The High Dynamic Range grade (only HDR10 is included on the disc) offers nicely saturated colors without ever pushing any of them too far. Contrast and black levels are both spot-on. Anyone who has only experienced Undefeatable on VHS or streaming is in for a pleasant surprise with how good it looks here. The flaws pale in comparison to the strengths.
The Bloody Mary Killer cut offers similar basic quality to Undefeatable for the shared footage, but it does demonstrate the differences between 4K and 1080p—everything is noticeably sharper in 4K than it is here. The roughly 30 minutes of footage in this version that wasn’t included in the Undefeatable cut shares similar characteristics to the surrounding material, although it may not have had quite as much attention paid to the cleanup process. Any such differences are minimal, though.
Audio for Undefeatable is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with Optional English SDH subtitles. The dialogue ranges from sounding bit harsh in some shots to muffled in others, but that appears to be inherent to the original recordings. Otherwise, the music and effects both sound robust enough to provide a little bit of extra kick to all the action.
The audio for Bloody Mary Killer is offered in Cantonese and Mandarin 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with removable English subtitles. Overall fidelity is more limited in both of these tracks, so they lack the punch of the English audio for Unforgettable, and the post-synced dialogue never integrates well into the soundstage.
UNDEFEATABLE (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C-/A-/B
BLOODY MARY KILLER (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C-/B+/B-
Vinegar Syndrome’s 4K Ultra HD release of Undefeatable is a three-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film, as well as a second Blu-ray with the Bloody Mary Killer cut. The insert is reversible, and there’s a 12-page booklet with an essay by Danielle Burgos tucked inside. There was also a slipcover designed by Robert Sammelin available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, but that was limited to the first 6,000 units and it’s already sold out. (Vive la physical media.) The following extras are included, all of them in HD:
DISC ONE: UNDEFEATABLE (UHD)
- Audio Commentary with Cynthia Rothrock
DISC TWO: UNDEFEATABLE (BD)
- Audio Commentary with Cynthia Rothrock
- Godfrey Ho Discusses Undefeatable (14:43)
- It’s a Cartoon with People (17:52)
- Street Fighter (12:27)
- They Call Him Stingray (25:33)
- A Mind for Action (16:00)
- Cynthia Rothrock: A Legendary Life (13:40)
- Undefeatable vs. Bloody Mary Killer (8:23)
- Undefeatable Trailer (2:42)
- Bloody Mary Killer Trailer (2:40)
The commentary with Cynthia Rothrock is moderated by Vinegar Syndrome’s Brad Henderson. They start by discussing her experiences working with Godfrey Ho (who she had worked with previously on Honor & Glory). She says that he was a mix of Hong Kong and western directing styles, and very intense on set. They cover plenty of stories about the making of the film, including the differences between it and Bloody Mary Killer, as well as her career as a martial artist. They also confront the infamous “worst fight scene ever” head-on, which Rothrock says had good fight techniques in it, but definitely had some over-the-top acting. (Henderson says that it’s better to laugh with the actors than at them, since they probably could kill us.) This isn’t so much a scene-specific commentary as it is a relaxed, freewheeling conversation between the two of them, and it’s arguably much better as a result.
The next five extras are all interviews with various participants in the making of Undefeatable. Godfrey Ho relates his early career working at Shaw Brothers, and explains why he left to pursue a career as director and producer on his own. He ended up shooting in the United States due to meeting Grandmaster Tai Yim, who has a small cameo in Undefeatable. Ho is as lively and energetic as ever, so it’s easy to see why Rothrock describes him as intense. It’s a Cartoon with People offers cinematographer Phil Cook, who says that Undefeatable was his first experience shooting in 35 mm after having previously worked in 16 mm only. Ho had been dissatisfied with the look of his last few films, so he brought in Cook to punch things up. While Ho was a little impatient with the time that Cook spent on lighting setups, he was happy with the results. (Cook says that in the end, it looks great for a film shot in Maryland). A Mind for Action features actor/assistant director Donna Jason, who started out as a dancer but ended up working in film after learning martial arts under Tai Yim. She says that she ended up with an assistant director credit on Ho’s films from the period because she wouldn’t stop making suggestions on set.
Street Fighter is an interview with Rothrock, and it’s something of an extension of her conversation with Henderson for the commentary track. She talks about working with Godfrey Ho, Donna Jason, Don Niam, John Miller, and stunt coordinator Douglas Hung. She says that in retrospect, Undefeatable isn’t as bad as she used to think that it was. She also hawks her upcoming project Black Creek, which she says is her own vision for what she wants her films to be. They Call Him Stingray features Don Niam, who had also been a student with Tai Yim. He explains how he got started with martial arts and ended up working his way into film. He has nothing but praise for the Hong Kong stunt crew, who took their punishment and kept working. He’s also not bothered by the fact that the final fight went viral for being so over-the-top. (He says that he’s still got a little bit of the crazy eyes, but he tries to tone them down these days.)
Cynthia Rothrock: A Legendary Life is a visual essay by Samm Deighan and Charles Perks that’s really an unabashed love letter to the legendary martial arts star. They feel she hasn’t received the level of recognition that she deserves, and they make every effort to rectify that situation. It’s a pretty comprehensive look at Rothrock’s life and career squeezed into just fourteen minutes. They explore her background, including her multiple blackbelts in a variety of disciplines, and her noteworthy career in Hong Kong cinema, as well as her American films. It’s a legendary extra about a legendary life. Finally, Undefeatable vs. Bloody Mary Killer is a featurette that demonstrates some of the differences between the two cuts of the film. It shows examples side-by-side along with text explaining the cuts that were made or footage that was added. (For a detailed shot-by-shot breakdown, the Movie-Censorship website also offers a useful resource.)
DISC THREE: BLOODY MARY KILLER (BD)
- Audio Commentary with Brandon Bentley
Filmmaker and historian Brandon Bentley provides the commentary for Bloody Mary Killer, describing himself as a Maryland resident and a fan of Hong Kong cinema, so he’s uniquely well-suited to handle this one. He details all of the differences between the two cuts, identifies the Maryland locations, and provides biographical information for all of the actors, including their marital arts backgrounds. He also examines the careers of Godfrey Ho and some of the crew. Bentley clearly did his research and he took it quite seriously, because he apologizes every time that he couldn’t track down a particular bit of minutiae. Regardless, he keeps the whole track moving at a brisk pace, so this is well worth the time, even if you don’t intend to watch Bloody Mary Killer on its own (although you really should).
That’s two cuts of the film based on the same impressive restoration, two very different but equally entertaining commentary tracks, a killer visual essay, and a barrel of interviews all squeezed together into a single overstuffed package. Vinegar Syndrome has really pulled out all the stops here. For anyone who questions why a film like Undefeatable has received the lavish 4K treatment, the answer remains, why not? It’s not like the world of 4K is a zero-sum game where a great Vinegar Syndrome release means that Warner Bros. or Fox can’t release one of their own titles. It’s a big, wide world of Ultra High Definition, and boutique labels like Vinegar Syndrome deserve all the credit in the world for bringing anything and everything into the format that they possibly can. The good news is that the small but steady niche market for this kind of thing does appear to have caught the attention of the major studios, and a larger quantity of big titles are starting to trickle out from them. Any way that you slice it, the existence of Undefeatable in 4K is a win-win for fans of physical media. The only thing that we stand to lose is our hard-earned money.
- Stephen Bjork