Inside an enormous warehouse on Goose Island, a gritty industrial site in downtown Chicago, 300 seamy-looking extras are bunched up around half a boxing ring. Wearing maroon satin shorts and black hightops, James Marshall, as boxer Tommy Riley, is up in the ring getting his chiseled cheekbones brutally bashed by his aptly named opponent, Black Death (Jeon-Paul Griffin). At 10:00 a.m., it’s already been a long day on the set of Gladiator, a drama about how a nice kid (Riley) gets involved in the world of illegal amateur boxing. The scene they are shooting today depicts Riley’s first time in the ring, and the odds are 15 to 1 against him. As the crowd watches, Death, a menacing tower of strength, delivers three devastating blows that send the poor kid reeling back into the ropes and then ricocheting forward into the clutches of his adversary. The bettors are going crazy, screaming and waving $20, $50, and $100 bills in the air.
But the crowd isn’t really screaming. In fact, all this is happening in near silence in order to capture the dialogue between the actors. Gladiator’s director, Rowdy Herrington (Roadhouse), watches intently on a black-and-white video screen. ”Cut!” he shouts, and his words echo in the cavernous quiet. The two actors spit out their mouth guards and start a good-natured slapping game of got-you-last. ”It’s this scene that got me hooked on the script because its ending is so unexpected,” says Herrington, referring to the bout’s surprising climax in which the underdog not only beats Black Death, but knocks the ref out as well.
Gladiator is an urban myth that combines the heart of Rocky with Beverly Hills, 90210 good looks, namely Marshall and his friend and ultimate opponent, Cuba Gooding Jr. The script had a similar effect on Marshall, who saw a lot of himself in the character. ”I’m a watcher,” says Marshall. ”There was something very real to his antihyperness. He’s very calm, and he’s always focused.” Determined to land the role, the 25-year-old actor trained with a boxing coach for 2 1/2 months before auditioning. He showed up for his screen test with a black eye and a bruised nose. ”Now I know why people like to box,” he says. ”When you’re hit — bam! — it’s like a high. First it stings, and then you get this rush and you tunnel vision right into the guy.”
Making the film’s powerful boxing sequences look real was Herrington’s biggest challenge. Ironically, despite all the training, the actors never actually touch each other during the fights. ”The key to this whole thing is selling the punch,” the director explains. ”What makes it work is when the actor receiving the blow spins his head at the exact moment the glove passes his face, and then it looks to the camera that he’s been hit.” For the scenes, he used two cameras placed at 90-degree angles. One, placed at profile, would capture the beginning of the throw, which would end in a miss. The other, placed behind the person being hit, would record the receiving of the punch. Every time one of the fighters changed positions, the camera angles would have to be realigned.
That drawn-out process was not only time consuming (this five-minute sequence took four days to complete) but tough on the actors as well. ”It’s like baseball,” says Herrington, ”When you swing and hit, it feels good. When you miss, it’s very hard.” Helping the director with the authentic-looking matches was boxing coordinator Jimmy Nickerson, who worked on Rocky and Raging Bull. Nickerson staged the fights and worked with the actors on their movements. ”You’ve got to have that f-you attitude, but still keep the proper body mechanics,” says Nickerson, ”Everything is choreographed down to the eye blink.”
After a short break, Marshall and Griffin are back in the ring rehearsing the scene again, while the cameras are being repositioned. Suddenly, Marshall mistakenly lands a fist in the face of his fellow fighter. Griffin’s eyes widen in shock and amusement. Says Herrington, ”I think this movie is going to connect.”