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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Sword' Takes a Piercing Look at Values

September 24, 1993|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"By the Sword" (selected theaters) takes us into the largely unfamiliar world of a modern-day fencing academy and thereby into the troubled souls of two very different men. Absorbing and sophisticated, it has a European quality in its willingness to let much go unsaid, trusting in implication, and in building tension slowly. F. Murray Abraham and Eric Roberts are perfectly cast as its stars.

Abraham's Max Suba is a man with a mission, but we don't know that when we meet him. He appears as a somewhat weary and defeated middle-aged man down on his luck when he applies for work at a Manhattan salle run by Roberts' handsome, imperious Alexander Villard, who quickly discovers that Suba is too rusty to teach fencing.

With condescension Villard offers him a job as a janitor, which Suba accepts. We watch Suba gradually coming alive, getting in shape, meeting an attractive, vivacious woman (Elaine Kagan) and little by little moving from dusting and mopping to some coaching, eventually winning Villard's grudging respect. It's clear enough, however, that Max has a murky past and that there will be some kind of reckoning between him and his employer, who oddly experiences similar nightmares.

What concerns director Jeremy Kagan and writers John McDonald and James Donadio is not so much the clash of swords but of values. Villard has such an intense "winning-is-everything" philosophy that he insists one of his star pupils (Chris Rydell), almost as arrogant as he is, break up a budding romance with a newcomer to the salle (Mia Sara) because she might prove too distracting. Suba, on the other hand, has learned that winning is nothing if it costs a loss of humanity. "By the Sword" further deals with childhood trauma which can result in a tragically distorted view of a lost parent, with the quest for redemption and with the timeless romantic allure of swordplay; it would seem that the picture, which bears a 1991 copyright, has been on the shelf because it isn't easy for exhibitors to slot.

It's gratifying to see both Abrahams, more a man of the theater than of films despite his Oscar for "Amadeus," and Roberts in roles worthy of them. "By the Sword" (rated R for language), which benefits strongly from Gary Frutkoff's imaginative and meticulous production design, is by no means a two-character film, and Kagan, Rydell, Sara and Brett Cullen as Villard's kindly, level-headed assistant, all get the chance to make favorable impressions.

'By the Sword'

F. Murray Abraham: Maximilian Suba

Eric Roberts: Alexander Villard

Mia Sara: Erin Clavelli

Chris Rydell: Jimmy Trebor

Elaine Kagan: Rachel

Brett Cullen: Gallagher

A Hansen Entertainment release of a Movie Group presentation of a Foil Film/Horizon production. Director Jeremy Kagan. Producers Peter Strauss, Marlon Staggs. Executive producers Phillip Rose, Robert Straight, Frank Giustra. Screenplay by John McDonald, James Donadio. Cinematographer Arthur Albert. Editor David Holden. Costumes Susan Nininger. Music Bill Conti. Production design Gary Frutkoff. Art director Kim Rees. Set decorator K.C. Fox. Sound Kim Ornitz. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (for language).

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