Plot: While newcomer Tommy Riley (Marshall) is sucked into the underground world of illegal boxing in Chicago in order to pay of his father's gambling debts, his friend, Abraham Lincoln Haines (Gooding Jr), is in it to get his family out of the ghettos. When these two meet in the ring, it's going to be for the fight of their lives.
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Getting sick of wannabe Rocky (1976) movies yet? Apparently not, as The Fighter is still garnering public interest and critical acclaim. But how about the teen version? With films like Never Back Down (2008) and it’s ilk being spewed out frequently, it’s hard to remember one you actually enjoyed…until you remember Gladiator.
Sure, the acting won’t win any Oscars®, but this ’92 film about a couple of guys fighting in the underground illegal boxing circuit made for a memorable film. James Marshall, while seeming to be Channing Tatum’s muse acting-wise (head down and mumbling his lines), turns out to be decent to watch in the ring, and plays The Great White Hope character well. His friendship with co-boxer Cuba Gooding, Jr. also hits on an emotional level. with Cuba doing most of the emoting, as per normal – although Cuba doesn’t seem right for the gang leader he plays outside the ring. Devoted father and loving husband…sure. But switching it out to be gang leader every so often? Nope.
And then there’s Brian Dennehy. His speaking performance makes it easy to see why he was chosen for the role – he manages to bring an oddly refreshing combination of sleaze and classiness to his character. He isn’t exactly in boxing shape, so seeing him in the ring is something else entirely. Wearing what only can be described as a copy of Andre the Giant’s wrestling attire, he bellies his way into the ring and proceeds to use every dirty trick in the book, while playing it up like he’s such a superstar boxer. Because he’s so obviously out of shape, it’s hard to picture him as the feared boxer the film tries to play him up as. Instead, he comes across as a spoiled brat that makes Tyson’s tactics in the ring against Holyfield seem like child’s play…making for a rather pathetic villain.
Like most boxing films, Gladiator is all about what happens in the ring. Delivering brawls worth cheering for, the film delivers solidly on that level, while leaving the happenings outside the ring to sort of fend for themselves. Thankfully, the outside setting, while less believable (complete with the 21 Jump Street (TV) theme of 20-somethings playing very old-looking high school kids), turns out decently, with the actors stumbling their way through the slower scenes without making the viewer grow bored while they wait for the next fight.
Sure, the characters are rather stereotypical – black kids are gang members; the Cuban guy listens to Gerardo; the white guy is just down-on-his-luck, but still manages to get the white girl; the teacher is earnest but the outside pressures are too much on her students; the boxing promoter is sleazy; the owner is corrupt – but they are fleshed out enough to keep the viewer entertained almost in spite of themselves.
If it weren’t for Cuba Gooding Jr’s heartfelt performance, Gladiator could have been just another throwaway Rocky (1976) wannabe. But, with his on-screen camaraderie with fellow boxer James Marshall, a soundtrack that includes a decent “We Will Rock You” remake by Warrant, and the not-as-bad-as-expected white boxer performance by Marshall, Gladiator, despite it’s many faults, gives viewers something to cheer for amongst the myriad of teen boxing flicks.