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  Gladiator Licking Them In The Ring
Year: 1992
Director: Rowdy Herrington
Stars: James Marshall, Cuba Gooding Jr, Robert Loggia, Brian Dennehy, Ossie Davis, Cara Buono, Jon Seda, T.E. Russell, Francesca P. Roberts, Lance Slaughter, John Heard, Deborah Stipe, Vonte Sweet, Antoine Roshell, Jeon-Paul Griffin, Mike Nussbaum
Genre: Drama, ActionBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Tommy Riley (James Marshall) has moved to this Chicago ghetto with his troubled father (John Heard), and is starting his first day at a new school, though it could have begun better as he attracts unwanted attention to himself when he shoots a stray basketball right into the hoop, and the players are less than impressed. This marks him out as someone to pick on, and sure enough when he arrives in English class he gets trouble from some would-be tough guys, though he only takes so much before he fires off a few deadpan quips at them, which angers them all the more. He does catch the eye of Dawn (Cara Buono), and his knowledge of Mark Twain impresses his teacher (Francesca P. Roberts), but fate will bring him to violence...

Violence of an organised variety, that was, in an action drama set in the shady world of boxing, as opposed to the more professional, visible, even showbiz world that would be shown on television or attract huge crowds. This was a far less glitzy affair that Tommy is drawn into, simply because he needs the money to pay off the loan sharks his father is in debt to, which in truth was a rather contrived method of contrasting the reasons the other, non-white characters get into the sport. This was the nineties, when the world's greatest boxers were judged to be black, a collection of young men from largely poor backgrounds who had risen through the ranks to excel, whereas the successful white boxers were thinner on the ground.

The trouble with that was it would potentially have been more interesting to chart the progress of Cuba Gooding Jr's character Haines, who befriends Tommy and has a career running parallel to his, but Marshall was one of those Twin Peaks cast members who secured their own leading role in a movie, though most of them had been the actresses rather than the male cast, so he was individual in that. Not that Gladiator did his career much good as it disappeared quickly from cinemas to build a minor cult following among boxing movie enthusiasts who appreciated its basic plotting and adherence to tradition, some would say cliché, albeit with more of an interest in the criminal element who infiltrated the sport.

Besides, there was a far bigger blockbuster that showed up eight years later with the same title that pretty much ensured this effort was eclipsed, so that whenever anyone mentioned a movie called Gladiator it was an image of Russell Crowe in his leather armour that sprang to mind, not Marshall posing in his shorts, fists raised in combative stance. In fact, it was a pretentious title for an unpretentious film, the intellectual bruiser conceit aside, director Rowdy Herrington coming off the absurdities of Road House to helm a less colourful, more muscular (and frankly, less camp) work which had more to say about social issues than staging man on man macho grappling, though that said there were times when the matches here resembled wrestling bouts more than fisticuffs. Through it all, Marshall glowered and looked appropriately physical in the action sequences.

He had very decent support from a collection of performers whose careers would go on to outshine his own in star wattage, Buono going on to flourish in television and Gooding of course winning an Oscar (as another sportsman), though you could argue his experiences had their ups and downs subsequently. On the more veteran front, Robert Loggia (who would also be given a memorable role by David Lynch) essayed the dodgy manager part, making sure Tommy stays in the job when he would prefer to have studied for university which we are told he is perfectly capable of doing, again the contrasts with those impoverished kids around him. Brian Dennehy was perhaps the real villain, pulling the strings to make big profits out of these young men knocking lumps out of each other, and in an odd twist he was portrayed as really good at boxing as well (he says strategy is the most important element of winning), which culminated in a bizarre finale that saw him and Marshall squaring off against one another in the ring. You forgave the less sensible developments, however, this was a perfectly fair, solidly diverting effort. Music by Brad Fiedel.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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