If you were a young moviegoer in 1976, it was possible to love Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky and have no idea that the movie was an affectionate assemblage of spare parts lifted from dozens of Hollywood classics (Marty, On the Waterfront, every Frank Capra triumph-of-the-little-guy epic ever made). On the other hand, it’s doubtful many people will sit through Gladiator without experiencing a major case of cinematic deja vu. A junior-league rip-off of Rocky (and countless other boxing films), the movie doesn’t just borrow from Stallone’s proto-Reaganite blockbuster — it all but samples it, sprinkling in bits and pieces from most of the other go-for-it sagas (The Karate Kid, An Officer and a Gentleman) that Rocky made possible. Gladiator is shamelessly derivative, yet it isn’t badly made. The movie serves up its formula goods with a straightforward, meat-and-potatoes charm.
On the South Side of Chicago, Tommy Riley (James Marshall), a disaffected high schooler ignored by his gambling, debt-ridden father (John Heard), gets drawn into the world of underground boxing. The popular, if illegal, bouts are masterminded by Horn (Brian Dennehy), a Faustian promoter who sets up his young, mostly nonwhite fighters against one another and then sits back and gloats, happily collecting the cash from bets. Marshall, who played the love- struck rebel James Hurley in Twin Peaks, has a square jaw and sculpted lips set off by a blond brush cut. He’s like Vanilla Ice without the smarmy narcissism, and he’s an expert at sensitive brooding. The other characters include Tommy’s faithful corner man (Ossie Davis); his cute, concerned, slightly bookish girlfriend (Cara Buono); a flashy young Cuban (Jon Seda) who’s so desperate to make it you just know he’s doomed; and Lincoln (Cuba Gooding Jr., from Boyz N the Hood), the noble black boxer whom Tommy befriends and then has to fight.
Seasoned moviegoers will know what’s coming in every scene, yet Gladiator is a cookie-cutter crowd pleaser of surprising proficiency. Tommy isn’t an underdog, like Rocky; he’s more of an invincible wunderkind, his power in the ring fueled by working-class rage. By the end, he’s supposed to have learned that a great fighter rises above his anger. The truth, of course, is that Tommy keeps winning not because his cool head prevails but because he has a more righteous desire to kick butt.
The fight scenes are vicious, demagogic, and thoroughly exciting. In the climax — a vicious bare-knuckle contest between Tommy and Horn — Dennehy’s performance takes on a glittering malice. If the movie scores at the box office, it will be for reasons that are both disquieting and understandable: Gladiator is pitched to an audience that wants, more and more, to be spoon-fed (it’s movies like this that help create that audience), but it accomplishes the task with pace, visual grit, and a roster of appealing actors. It’s like a rerun you can’t quite bring yourself to turn off. B-