Gladiator is an exercise in audience manipulation, an interracial buddy movie. It’s as if the producers called in their writers and said, ‘Give us a boxing picture with some of that Barton Fink feeling.’ Result is a formulaic attempt at an underdog saga that worked far better in the 1930s and 1940s.
Problem is that the filmmakers’ bait-and-switch strategies are transparent. Cuba Gooding Jr (Boyz N the Hood) receives top billing, but the film is relentlessly centered around his white pal, James Marshall (Twin Peaks). Early reels exploit the racial tensions in a Chicago high school en route to a predictable revelation that both sets of youngsters have a common enemy, the white businessman (Brian Dennehy) who stages their illegal boxing matches.
Marshall, cast as the new kid in school, is sullen and far too low key through much of the picture. Director Rowdy He§rrington, who poured on the trash in Road House, aims for a grittier feel this time, with dull results. Gooding is sympathetic and a convincing pugilist.