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‘Gladiator’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 06, 1992

Let's make things perfectly clear. "Gladiator" is utter trash masquerading as an action picture with a message. You can listen to the lip-service about the importance of an education, about the evils of boxing, and laugh. It's a joke. The filmmakers know it. You know it. "Gladiator" is a fight movie, pure and simple. It's about breaking jaws, cutting eyes open and beating your opponent into a bloody pulp. It's about the joy of winning ugly.

If you like your meat red, this one's for you.

Now that the politically correct have been warned, let's talk pecs and violence. In "Gladiator," laconic James Marshall is about to find out that -- as far as boxing goes -- you don't just jump in and jump out. The high school senior and his father (John Heard) have come into Chicago's South Side on the run. Seems dad owes too much money to the wrong people. Marshall, a former Golden Gloves champ, is a smart kid set to go to college. But that debt's too big, and the loan sharks too impatient, for Heard to pay back in time. After sleazy scout Robert Loggia sees what Marshall can do with his fists, he invites him into the world of illegal prize fighting.

In this underground league -- presided over by bulky promoter Brian Dennehy -- the Marquess of Queensbury is out. Kicking in the crotch is in. Marshall finds out these rules the hard way. He also finds himself next to Cuba Gooding Jr., a kid he saved from a street gang beating. Gooding wants out of the ghetto, Marshall wants out of a hole. But Dennehy wants just one of them for the ultimate big time.

What makes "Gladiator" so watchable is the primal excitement of those life-and-death bouts. The fighting is choreographed convincingly by boxing coordinator Jim Nickerson and director Rowdy Herrington and it's filmed with gritty vitality by Tak Fujimoto, Jonathan Demme's cameraman. Both Marshall (from "Twin Peaks") and Gooding ("Boyz N the Hood") give strong, authoritative performances -- in the ring and out. Gooding is engaging and wise-talking, Marshall memorably sullen and tenacious. There are good turns also from Loggia, a master of the R-rated gruff talk, and Ossie Davis, as Marshall's good-angel trainer.

The finale -- featuring a strange mano a mano indeed -- is so ludicrous it almost makes sense. As for the message parts, they stick out like broken pinkies. Cara Buono, a classmate of Marshall's who has fallen for him, seems to be lurking behind every corner to tell him to quit boxing and start booking. Her very appearance on screen is enough -- for an action-oriented audience -- to induce groans and derision. Between fights, responsible Gooding takes good care of his beautiful little love child. As for the dangers of boxing-induced brain damage, a tragic incident and a strategically placed Muhammad Ali poster take care of that.

The best social commentary, however, occurs at the beginning. School teacher Francesca P. Roberts sarcastically encourages her students to read books because it will give the women something to do in their ninth month of pregnancy, and the men something to do in their jail cells. That throwaway comment says more about the hopelessness of the young and poor than any of the unwieldy didacticism to come.

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