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)