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‘The Power of One’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 27, 1992

An epic biography of a South African orphan, "The Power of One" is an absorbing but awkward union of the two-fisted boxing movie with the moist-eyed British memoir. John G. Avildsen, the Don King of movie directors, has devised "Bout of Africa," a politically correct melding of "Rocky" and PBS's "The Flame Trees of Thika." Though rife with worthy intentions and great notions, this populist safari manages to be both patronizing and manipulative.

Adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by Bryce Courtenay, the story concerns the making of an anti-apartheid activist, a South African boy of English parentage who was scorned by the Dutch-French-German-descended Afrikaners. It all begins enchantingly enough with a brave and wistful performance from Guy Witcher, who plays the fair-haired P.K. as a 7-year-old. Raised on the family farm by his Zulu nanny, P.K. is sent away to an Afrikaner boarding school when his mother falls ill. Upon enrolling, P.K. becomes the victim of the school bully, a Nazi manque who nearly kills the child during a pep rally for Hitler.

Sent to live with his grandfather, P.K. befriends a jailed German pianist (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and a resourceful inmate (Morgan Freeman), who teach him how to use his mind and his fists. Now a 12-year-old played by Simon Fenton, P.K. sees the black prisoners cruelly humiliated by the white jailers, who hate and fear them. Noting his facility for languages and his flair for diplomacy, P.K.'s black mentor spreads a rumor linking the boy to the myth of the Rain Maker, a messianic unifier of all the tribes of Africa. Though this segment is driven by Freeman's humbly beautiful performance and Mueller-Stahl's comically pensive one, it ends on a ludicrous note. P.K. forms a prison chorus and leads it in a concert. Must be the Paul Simon influence.

At this point Avildsen gives up all lyrical pretentions and turns bum-fistedly to the pugilistic format that he used not only in "Rocky," Parts I and V, but in "The Karate Kid," Parts I, II and III. Now an 18-year-old played by Stephen Dorff, P.K. more or less boxes his way into the hearts of the black South Africans. He befriends a former boxing foe (Alois Moyo), an activist from the townships, and together they work against the growing inevitability of apartheid.

Matters are complicated when P.K. falls in love with a fanatical Afrikaner's freckle-faced daughter (Fay Masterson) who is improbably menaced by his old nemesis -- the bully from grade school who has become a corrupt cop in Johannesburg. Screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen, who collaborated with Avildsen on two "Karate Kids," goes to the mat with the genre formula. The bully must be dispensed, the girl must be won, the hero must box not for personal glory but a greater good. You see all the punches coming.

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