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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Gladiator' Packs No Surprise Punches

March 06, 1992|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Western may be dead, the musical may be in partial remission, but the boxing film keeps slugging away. To argue that the slugfests are about as predictable as a presidential campaign primary speech is to miss the point. Predictability is the lifeblood of the boxing film.

The boxing genre, because it's more adaptable to urban, contemporary myths, and because it's easy to slap on a rap soundtrack, has survived into a new generation in a way the Western hasn't.

But this doesn't mean it's survived with any glory. "Gladiator" (citywide), the latest "Rocky"-esque fantasia, is interesting only as a kind of sociological specimen; it's a Great White Hope scenario that plugs into race-baiting hatreds but covers its tracks by trying for a brotherhood-of-man effect. (The R rating is for violence and language.) It has a trashy, low-road, rabble-rousing spirit but it also has high-road pretensions. It's a violent movie that wants to make an anti-violence "statement," the oldest ploy in the boxing film genre.

Tommy Riley (James Marshall) is the new kid on the block on Chicago's tough South Side. Although Tommy was raised in Connecticut in the lap of the middle class, his gambler father (John Heard) has fallen on hard times. Heard looks to be about eight years older than Marshall. No wonder he's in trouble.

To erase some of his father's markers, Tommy agrees to a one-time-only prizefight. Does he win? Does he fight again? Does his scurvy promoter (Brian Dennehy) sink his hooks into the boy? Does his wise old trainer (Ossie Davis) give him some valuable life lessons? Does Tommy's winsome girlfriend (Cara Buono) urge him to lay down his gloves?

If you answered "no" to any of the above, you probably also think Don King wears a crew cut.

Tommy's main adversary in the ring is a black ganglord named Shortcut (Lance Slaughter). Shortcut is a preening, sociopathic racial caricature, but the filmmakers are careful to counterbalance him with the noble Lincoln (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who fights to lift his picture-perfect wife and child out of the ghetto, and with a Cuban hotshot (Jon Seda) who is so cocky and good-humored that you just know something awful is going to happen to him. Shortcut and Lincoln are mortal enemies, so when Tommy saves Lincoln's life during a gang attack, we are primed for the moment when they, too, will have to face off in the ring.

Because the boxing promoters are in the business of exploiting racial tensions in the ring, that's supposed to buy off the crude exploitation of racial tensions by the filmmakers. They're both in the same business really.

'Gladiator'

James Marshall: Tommy

Cuba Gooding Jr.: Lincoln

Ossie Davis: Noah

Brian Dennehy: Horn

A Columbia Pictures presentation. Director Rowdy Harrington. Producers Frank Price and Steve Roth. Screenplay by Lyle Kessler and Robert Mark Kamen. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto. Editor Peter Zinner. Costumes Donfeld. Music Brad Fiedel. Production design Gregg Fonseca. Art director Bruce Miller. Set decorator Jay R. Hart. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (violence and language).

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