Jeremy Williams, Bob Papenbrook, Carman

After scoring a sleeper B.O. success with "The Omega Code," TBN Films attempts a mainstream breakthrough with "Carman: The Champion." It may require a miracle to attract the masses to this modestly engaging but thoroughly formulaic drama about a boxer turned preacher who returns to the ring to fund a community-outreach center.

This article was corrected on March 14, 2001.

After scoring a sleeper B.O. success with “The Omega Code,” a 1999 Apocalyptic thriller aimed primarily at Christian fundamentalists, TBN Films — an offshoot of the evangelical Trinity Broadcasting Network — attempts a mainstream breakthrough with “Carman: The Champion.” It may require a miracle to attract the masses to this modestly engaging but thoroughly formulaic drama about a boxer turned preacher who returns to the ring to fund a community-outreach center. On the other hand, TBN’s hard-sell promotional activities — tie-ins with various churches and Bible-study groups, round-the-clock promos on TBN broadcasts — could conceivably attract flocks of the faithful to megaplexes during pic’s opening weekend of limited theatrical release.

Christian pop music performer Carman acquits himself reasonably well in the lead role of a star vehicle he co-wrote. As Orlando Leone, a former cruiserweight champ who hung up his gloves to take over his father’s inner-city ministry, Carman evidences an affable, easygoing screen presence and effectively handles a few intensely emotional moments.

As an actor playing a boxer, he’s certainly not in the same league as De Niro or Stallone. On the other hand, as a singer taking a stab at acting, he is definitely an improvement over Neil Diamond in “The Jazz Singer,” and at the very least as good as John Denver in “Oh, God!”

Predictable plot, presumably inspired in part by the real-life ministry of boxer George Foreman, has Orlando operating a neighborhood center where at-risk kids, newly released convicts and other needy folks can gather for wholesome fun and spiritual uplift. He makes a special point of trying to reform Cesar (Romeo Fabian), especially after he meets Allia (Patricia Manterola), the boy’s beautiful single mother.

Eager to expand his do-good activities, but desperately strapped for cash, Orlando works part-time as a security guard at a swanky hotel. When a latenight party gets out of hand, our hero winds up having to punch out the most bellicose party animal — who just happens to be the current cruiserweight champ, Keshon Banks (Jeremy Williams).

Incident generates considerable tabloid publicity, much to the great displeasure of a slick-and-sleazy boxing promoter (Jed Allan) who once tried to force Orlando into taking a dive. So the promoter orders his chief underling — Freddie (Michael Nouri), who just happens to be Orlando’s estranged brother — into arranging an exploitable grudge match between the ex-champ and the current title-holder.

Orlando is understandably reluctant to resume his boxing career after a 10-year hiatus, but ultimately opts to take the title shot, if only to retain a heavily mortgaged office building to expand his ministry.

Oddly enough, no one questions whether a deeply religious, God-fearing man like Orlando should ever make money by beating the hell out of someone. Maybe that’s because Orlando plans to open up a can of whup-ass on a loud-mouthed jerk who parties hearty, exploits women, drinks to access and, in all likelihood, doesn’t say his prayers at night.

As Keshon, Williams gives a full-throttle, scene-stealing performance, and gets a few good laughs during a sequence in which the belligerent boxer repeatedly muffs his lines while filming a TV commercial.

Among the other supporting players, Manterola makes a pleasant impression as the comely single mom, but Nouri has little to do but moodily glower as Orlando’s duplicitous sibling. Director Lee Stanley, an Emmy-winning TV vet, sustains an aptly brisk pace while covering familiar territory.

Tech values are uneven. A few shots are conspicuously mismatched, and there’s a distracting golden-lit look to almost all of the exterior scenes. On the other hand, the soundtrack features several well-chosen Christian pop songs, some of which — surprise! — are sung by Carman. The climactic boxing match is convincingly staged, even if there’s never any real doubt about the outcome.

Carman: The Champion

Production

An 8X Entertainment release of a TBN Films presentation of a Gener8xion Entertainment production. Produced by Gary M. Bettman, Lawrence Mortorff and Matthew Crouch. Executive producer, Paul Crouch. Co-producer, Richard J. Cook. Directed by Lee Stanley. Screenplay, Less Stanley, Carman, Tony Cinciripini, Tadd Callies.

Crew

Camera (color), Steve Adcock; editor, Shane Stanley; music, Harry Manfredini; production designer, Nanci B. Roberts; set decorator, Tiffany Cowsill-Schue; costume designer, Jyl Moder; sound (Dolby), David Waelder; associate producer, Stephan Blinn; assistant director, Susan McGuire; casting, Jean Scoccimarro. Reviewed at Loews Cineplex Fountains Theater, Houston, March 2, 2001. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 82 MIN.

With

Orlando Leone - Carman Freddie - Michael Nouri Allia - Patricia Manterola Keshon Banks - Jeremy Williams Laracco - Jed Allan Cesar - Romeo Fabian Geneva - Betty Carvalho Johnny - Jay Arlen Jones Bill Boggs - Himself Steve Albert - Himself
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