Cuba Gooding Jr., James Marshall

A tale of a mixed-up teenage pugilist who is a good kid at heart, Gladiators is an old-fashioned punch 'em-up movie dressed in shiny new boxing trunks and toting a boom box of a sound track. It may seem meaningful and affecting if you're 15 or 16 and still susceptible to films like this, but it will strike anyone older as clichéd and predictable.

James Marshall, who played smoldering James Hurley on Twin Peaks, is disappointingly stolid as Tommy Riley, a brainy high school student—he knows "Mark Twain" is a nautical term—who answers the bell as a way of paying off his recently widowed pop's gambling debts. Drooling over Tommy's Great White Hope possibilities are two promoters, Robert Loggia and Brian Dennehy, a loathsome duo who specialize in pitting white fighters against black, black against Hispanic and creating any other ethnic combinations likely to whet the frenzy of the fans. Inevitably they match Marshall against a black pal, Gooding (impressive in Boyz N the Hood, less so in this throwaway), even though Gooding has been warned by a doctor that another punch to his head could mean risking his life.

What will Tommy do? Something cool but honorable, just as troubled teen movie heroes have been doing since Andy Hardy grew up. Directed by action-film hack Rowdy (Road House) Harrington. Gladiator boasts boxing scenes with jaw-loosening punches and spectacular whomp-whomp-whomp sound effects. As drama, though, the film misses as badly as most of the punches. (R)

Michel Bouquet, Jo de Backer

The unexamined life, Socrates said, is not worth living. Well, Thomas Godet (Bouquet), the surveyor hero of this dark, funny, surrealistic and inexorably moving film, knows a lot about examining his life. It's all he does.

The way Thomas, now 60, sees things, he has been dished out the wrong existence. He's convinced he was switched at birth with the spoiled rich boy next door, whose father, incidentally, he views as responsible for the death of his own beloved dad. The elderly Thomas wants his life back from his boyhood nemesis, now a powerful industrialist. How he goes about laving claim to what he sees as his proper existence is the heart of Belgian director Jaco van Dormael's beautifully performed film about memory, longing and redemption.

Divided into three segments of seamless flashbacks and flash forwards, the movie chronicles Thomas's life as a boy, including his tacit love for his precocious sister Alice (Sandrine Blancke).

Thomas, who as a boy amused himself with the fantasy that he was a heroic secret agent named Toto, maintains the fantasy as an impotently vengeful old man. Plot lines intricately double back on themselves in adroitly ironic twists. The ultimate irony: As Thomas embraces the life he views as rightfully his, becoming the hero of his dreams, he must confront his own mortality. (In French, with subtitles) (PG-13)

Judy Davis, Helen Mirren

Working herself into a comic pique, the peerless Australian export Davis (Barton Fink) is an unlikable, repressed, upper-class Englishwoman, Harriet Herriton, who habitually looks as if she has just been sucking lemons. She is at her most citrus-laced while visiting Italy, sourly telling a group of chattering Italians, "I don't care for the lot of you." She adds, "I'm English," as if this explains everything.

In a way, it does. This literate, tidy period film, an adaptation of E.M. Forster's 1905 novel of the same name, is about the blind insistence of the imperial British on esteeming their culture above all others—and the sometimes tragic-consequences of such ethnocentric pigheadedness. Here the consequences are dire indeed when Davis visits Italy to recover the infant son left behind by a sister-in-law (Mirren) who has died in childbirth. (Earlier in the movie the sister-in-law, widow of Harriet's late brother, creates a scandal by marrying a beautiful Italian youth half her age; he is the baby's father.)

Aided by a first-rate cast that also includes Helena Bonham Carter and Rupert Graves, director Charles Sturridge (Brideshead Revisited) has made a film that is gracefully wry and amusing, even if it errs on the side of preciousness. If Masterpiece Theatre is your cup of tea, haul out your teacup. (PG)

Julie T. Wallace, Paul Campbell

Let it be noted that this self-consciously whimsical trifle may be the first film to boast as its rallying cry, "Pum-pum rules"—pum-pum being Jamaican patois for female genitalia.

Set in Jamaica, this debut film of director Lol Creme, the British ex-rocker (1Occ) turned music video-maker (Herbie Hancock's Rockit), tells the story of a village idiot (Campbell) for whom flora and fauna are frequent conversational companions. When Wallace, a strapping German tourist with lust in her heart and criminal money-making schemes in her head, spies him asleep under his favorite tree and makes him her own, Campbell's life is over and the pum-pum dominion has begun.

There are a few bawdy laughs in the ensuing reign, but not enough. Campbell, a Jamaican actor, is merely personable, While Wallace, a British actress best known stateside (at least to A&E cable watchers) for her fabulously grotesque turn as the She-Devil in the BBC's The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil, goes overboard with her German accent and heavy-handed comic takes.

Wanna bet that the American remake will feature a cheerleader and be called Pom-Pom Still Rules? (R)

  • Contributors:
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Joanne Kaufman.