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Film review: Gladiator

Director Rowdy Herrington showed promise with an interesting low-budget horror film a few years ago called "Jack's Back," but then followed it up with the ridiculous, sleazy "Road House," a big-budget vehicle for Patrick Swayze.

Herrington comes up a few notches with "Gladiator," his third film, but the screenplay (by three writers) is an uneasy blend of "Boyz N the Hood" and "Raging Bull," ultimately settling in as a predictable "Rocky" yarn.

Too bad. The film starts off well, as a sullen teenager (James Marshall, of TV's "Twin Peaks") moves with his widowed father (unbilled John Heard) from the high-rent Bridgeport district to Chicago's rundown South Side.

In his new high school, Marshall shows off some smarts in his literature class but, for no apparent reason, is targeted by a black gang that hounds his every move (although it virtually disappears about halfway through the film).

Marshall becomes friends with a friendly fellow student (Jon Seda, as the film's obvious sacrificial lamb), eventually forms an uneasy alliance with a rival gang member (Cuba Gooding Jr., who had the lead role in "Boyz N the Hood") and hits it off with a girl (Cara Buono) in his literature class. He later gets a job washing dishes in a diner run by Buono's mother.

These introductory scenes are realistic and compelling, and it appears that "Gladiator" will be a probing look at racial tension in a high school overrun by gangs. But then the film takes a turn that proves to be its true direction.

Marshall meets up with a sleazy boxing recruiter (Robert Loggia) who works for an even sleazier fight promoter (Brian Dennehy). When Loggia discovers that Marshall is a former Golden Gloves champ, he gets him to fight — one fight — on an illegal boxing circuit that Dennehy runs.

Dennehy is impressed and wants Marshall to be his "great white hope," but Marshall refuses to get involved. Naturally, Dennehy discovers that Marshall's father is deeply in debt to the mob and uses the information to twist Marshall's arm.

In the end, Marshall finds he must fight his friend Gooding, which he doesn't want to do (for medical as well as personal reasons). And ultimately, there is a match in the ring between Marshall and Dennehy himself — a zany moment that by itself is almost worth the price of admission.

When veterans Ossie Davis (as Marshall's trainer) or Loggia or Dennehy are on the screen, the film has more energy than it deserves. And it's fun to watch Dennehy ham it up, putting sneering humor into his villainous role.

But most of the way, "Gladiator" is a drag, hampered by Marshall's bland, one-note performance and the story's silly predictability.

It's rated R for violence and profanity, with a brief sex scene.