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‘Gladiator’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 06, 1992

"Gladiator" is a bone-crunching boxing movie in which sweaty half-naked youths beat the bejabbers out of each other for the amusement of America's more bloodthirsty and puerile moviegoers. It's packaged, not made, really, for folks who titter uncomfortably when the hero steals a clumsy kiss from the girl. Any real intimacy is reserved for the ring -- and the brutal ritual of the testosterone ballet.

Choreographed by Jimmy Nickerson, a boxing movie veteran, this bruising pas de deux is as violently glamorous as its predecessors and as full of raging bull: It might look like a movie about vicious interracial hatred but, say the filmmakers, its message ultimately is one Gandhi would approve of. Phooey.

Writers Lyle Kessler and Robert Mark Kamen must go to preposterous lengths to equip this rumpus with a well-spoken white hero. That's not to take anything away from James Marshall, who plays a college-bound suburbanite who is sucked into the underground amateur boxing arenas of South Side Chicago. Marshall, the broody biker in "Twin Peaks," is the all-American laconic, a strong, silent stranger in the 'hood who backs away from a fight unless forced to put up his dukes. He plays Tommy Riley, a heart-palpitatingly handsome high schooler whose Golden Gloves training comes in handy when he moves to the ghetto. His recently widowed father (John Heard), a recovering alcoholic, bankrupted them by running up gambling debts. Manipulated by an unscrupulous boxing promoter, Horn (Brian Dennehy), Tommy fights to win back his father's markers.

Horn, a former contender himself, runs a ruthless circuit in which there are no rules and the fights are generally between boxers of different races. This does not sit well with Tommy, who may be trapped by poverty (uh-huh) but was raised to be politically correct. To make matters worse, he befriends Horn's top black fighter, Lincoln (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a young husband and father who sees his fists as his ticket out. It comes as no surprise when the two friends are set against each other and their bond is tested ringside.

The screenplay, contrived to suit the genre, is likewise replete with stock characters. Still, many of the actors manage to bring dignity, humor and even finesse to these tired roles. Gooding has the angelic good looks of Isiah Thomas and invests Lincoln with courageous sweetness. It's too bad the part isn't better developed.

Director Rowdy (apt, no?) Herrington either has a way with actors or, more likely, simply has the good sense to stand back while Ossie Davis and Robert Loggia work magic with supporting roles. Davis is the movie's elder statesman, a Yodaesque trainer who teaches Tommy the zen of the game, while Loggia brings pond scum to sentience as Horn's lackey.

But then there's the trouble with Dennehy, who must have prepared for his part by watching "Wrestlemania." We are asked to believe that the portly 52-year-old actually gives the chiseled young protagonist a contest when the two go mano a mano in one of many climactic scenes. Marshall is clad in trunks, but Dennehy is packed into a black lycra bodysuit. It's hard to say which is uglier -- the beating one especially mean kid gives a challenger or Dennehy dressed for low-impact aerobics.

"Gladiator" is rated R for profanity and violence.

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