The strokes in "Gladiator" are so broad and primal it's more a cave-painting than a movie. In fact, I'd bet the script was written in animal blood and manure; it certainly smells like it.
Nominally the story of two young boxers and an evil fight promoter, it's overloaded with melodramatic angst to the point of unbelievability. And it's so loud it leaves your head ringing and your knees shaking.
James Marshall, not all that impressive in "Twin Peaks," isn't terribly impressive in "Gladiator." He's that figure from Thirties mythology and no place else, the poet with fists of iron. A brooding loner dumped in an inner city school when his #i unreliable father suffers gambling losses and has to go "on the road" (i.e., into hiding) to avoid the mob's bone busters, he quickly shows his sensitivity and his guts.
Quickly Marshall's Tommy Riley gets in a duke-out with the local hood and the intensity of the racial invective in the film is initially unsettling. But just as quickly the danger of a racist text is avoided when he bonds with a conveniently multihued cast of chums, notably a Cuban and a noble black (Cuba Gooding Jr.).
But Riley's fistic skills attract the attention first of fight promoter Pappy Jack (Robert Loggia, whose performance suggests that tomorrow acting is to be outlawed). Pappy Jack, in turn, steers Tommy to Horn (Brian Dennehy). Now I happen to like Dennehy, as an actor (he's always good) and as an interview (he's a no-bull guy all the way). But, speaking of no bull, in this movie, he stinks.
He makes Loggia look modest and restrained. It's as if he's taking his cue from some portrait of a capitalist exploiter out of a proletarian prose poem published in the Daily Worker in the '30s: he's a smarmy, sleek, grinning paragon of evil, a Snidely Whiplash who sucks champagne and eats escargots while radiating contempt for the "little people" whose bodies and souls he manipulates for his own profits. I could see this performance in a WPA "Theater of the People" production in which his name would undoubtedly be "Col. Buffington" and he'd be identified as a "Captain of Industry." But in an American movie in the '90s, it's a crass embarrassment.
Of course, the evil Dennehy, who appears to run an illegal boxing circuit that attracts thousands of spectators but no police, matches the fighters for maximum melodramatic potency, just like the famous bouts between Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage, but with less artistry. So there's a lot of pulpy pounding and bashing, of course, but none of it with the grace and good humor of the pro-wrestling circuit.
There are, of course, no surprises in "Gladiator." Everybody you think is going to die does die, everybody you think is going to get beaten up does get beaten up and everybody you think is going to triumph does triumph. This is sad. Once upon a time, boxing movies occupied a special place in the pantheon as a number of great directors used them as metaphors for a violent )) and class-riddled society. And great actors build careers out of them: John Garfield in "Body and Soul" and Kirk Douglas in "Champion" are two examples.
Now the "boxing movie" has been reduced to cartoon -- Sylvester Stallone is the true villain, along with the undemanding American film audience -- and this absurdity which mixes crude cynicism with cheap uplift is the result. It ends with a fat, 50-year-old man fighting a tough 18-year-old boy. This is supposed to be a challenge? Youth, as they say, will out.
Starring James Marshall and Cuba Gooding Jr.
Released by Columbia.