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My Three Contenders

Like father, like son, only better, in the insidiously likable Price of Glory

In the opening scenes of Price of Glory, set in the late '70s, a young prizefighter named Arturo Ortega (Jimmy Smits) loses a career-making bout. He earns a few grand, but he's plainly washed up in the ring, and we're meant to see that it's his greedy manager's fault -- like Antonio Banderas in the recent Play It to the Bone, Arturo has been brought up too soon. He boxes for a few more years before giving up and settling into married life and an assembly-line job in a small southern Arizona town.

The film then traces the resistible rise of Arturo himself as a boxing manager. Over the next couple of decades he pesters his three sons to anguish and distraction with the sweet science. The eldest, Sonny (Jon Seda), is a solid contender who has the temerity to want some sort of balanced life outside of boxing. Middle son Jimmy (Clifton Collins Jr.) is troubled by the Jan Brady syndrome; he suspects, not inaccurately, that Arturo rates him less highly than his brothers in the ring. The youngest, Johnny (Ernesto Hernandez), is an eager-to-please daddy's boy and, Arturo suspects, potentially the greatest fighter of the three.

Since he himself couldn't rise to champion, Arturo settles for being "a stone boxing patriarch." He pushes Jimmy toward a couple of quick-money bouts in order to "take care of him," that is, to get his career over with so he can focus on the more promising Sonny and Johnny. Paranoid about promoters, Arturo rebuffs the advances of the shady-acting big shot (Ron Perlman) who's drooling over the boys' prospects, even though the man has the resources to run their careers properly.

He screams at and belittles his boys, slams them up against lockers and brainwashes them, demonizing anything that differs from his opinion. He transparently does it all for himself, even while claiming that he's doing it all for them. He also keeps insisting to his doormat wife (the beautiful Spanish-born actress Maria Del Mar) that he's got the situation well in hand, though he seems, at times, very nearly on the edge of psychosis.

Turmoil and tragedy ensue, some of it fairly plausible, some of it contrived. The point, though, is that all of Arturo's sons end up damaged by their old man's obsession. Then, at the end, the audience is supposed to be moved by the conventional sports-movie finale. What's annoying is that it mostly works. Despite the plot hokum and the self-consciously ethnic dialogue, this leisurely paced, handsomely shot film, scripted by former New York Times boxing writer Phil Berger and directed by the young Carlos Avila (his first feature), is ultimately satisfying.

Much of the credit for this must go to the NYPD Blue alumnus Smits. He has always been a strong actor, fiery yet intelligent and precise, and if Arturo isn't a great role, it is at least a big, meaty part that offers him plenty to do. The sons butt heads with him convincingly -- Seda, who played Detective Falzone on TV's Homicide (and himself a former Golden Gloves amateur), is poised; Collins is likably intense; and if Hernandez, a buff newcomer to acting, doesn't make too much of an impression, he isn't terrible, either. Ron Perlman, Louis Mandylor and Paul Rodriguez help out in character turns, as does '70s-era welterweight champ Carlos Palomino.

Though well-acted and well-crafted, with lovely desertscapes shot by the Brazilian cinematographer Affonso Beato, Price of Glory is predictable, conventional and unadventurous. It can't really be defended, except that it's comfortably enjoyable. It draws you in, gradually, like some schmaltzy old movie you stay up late watching on TV because you need to see how it ends -- even though you already know.

Price of Glory Directed by Carlos Avila. With Jimmy Smits, Jon Seda, Clifton Collins Jr. and Ernesto Hernandez. Rated PG-13.

 
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