From Rouben Mamoulian's GOLDEN BOY and Martin Ritt's THE GREAT WHITE HOPE to John Houston's FAT CITY and Martin Scorsese's RAGING BULL, in the movies a boxing match is never just a boxing match--it's a metaphor, a spectacle, a microcosmic embodiment of the struggles within the human soul.
Did audiences cheer Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa through countless rounds and six films because they doubted the outcome, or because they loved watching him prance around a ring in decorative trunks? Of course not--Rocky and its sequels are all about the triumph of the underdog, the
comeuppance of the smug and the wealthy, the unlikely victory of fairness in an unfair world. GLADIATOR trades on the same message in a slightly different package, packing a plea for racial tolerance between the punches and assuring viewers that everything will indeed be alright if we can just
White-bread suburbanite Tommy Riley (James Marshall) is an anomaly in his new school in a tough, inner-city Chicago neighborhood. But he can box, and that's enough to earn him the respect of at least some of his classmates, the ones who see the sport as a way out of the grinding poverty of their
lives. Recruited by an unscrupulous promoter, Riley enters the ring reluctantly (alcoholic father, gambling debts, etc.) and keeps swearing he won't fight again. But wealthy and brutal Horn (Brian Dennehy), the ghetto Mephistopheles who controls the boxing rackets, won't let him go. Riley is a
rare commodity, a white fighter in a sea of black and Hispanic faces, and Horn smells money in the exploitation of racial tensions in the ring.
Riley becomes friendly with two of his fellow fighters, a cocky, sweet-natured Hispanic youth and the proud, ambitious Lincoln (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), who's black. It's no great surprise when the former winds up beaten to a brain-dead pulp by an unscrupulous opponent, and the latter finds himself
facing off against Riley in the ring; not for nothing is the film called GLADIATOR. Lincoln and Riley refuse to fight, realizing they have a common enemy in Horn. Riley's taunting invitation to the older man to go one-on-one with him provides the film with its obvious but satisfying conclusion.
GLADIATOR is filmmaking by the numbers, if a particularly glossily executed package: director Rowdy Herrington (ROADHOUSE) mixes a top-ten soundtrack, handsome stars of all colors, little guy vs. the system conflict and an up-beat message swaddled in enough cynical layers to make it palatable to
today's superficially tough audiences, and manages to keep it all moving surprisingly smoothly. The only place it's a little short is on the love interest front, and that's to be expected: boxing is the quintessential man's world, so it's only fitting that wives and girlfriends take a back seat to
the sweaty joys of punching bags and jockstraps.
The cast is better than average, ranging from Ossie Davis as a wise coach to Robert Loggia as a smarmy recruiter; Brian Dennehy stands out as the truly loathsome bully boy Horn, a slumlord of the soul. Leads James Marshall and Cuba Gooding, Jr. (of "Twin Peaks" and BOYZ 'N' THE HOOD fame,
respectively) are called upon to do little more than glower attractively, and do so. John Heard's role as Riley's father lends new meaning to the phrase "phone it in"; after a brief scene in which he resolves to make up for his past failures, he leaves town and occasionally calls to see how his
son is faring.
Despite its fairy-tale narrative, GLADIATOR's boxing sequences are strikingly vivid and brutal. The bouts are nothing if not visceral and occasionally they're truly disturbing, reminding the viewer of the savagery that lies right below the brittle surface of the sweet science. GLADIATOR breaks no
new ground, but it pays off scrupulously, fulfilling--in fact, catering to--audience expectations at every turn. This may not sound like much of an achievement, but when theaters are full of movies that don't deliver on their implicit promises, it's nice to see a movie that gives audiences exactly
what they've paid for. (Violence.)
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