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Price of Glory

Review by Cynthia Fuchs
Posted 31 March 2000

Directed by Carlos Avila

Starring Jimmy Smits, 
Jon Seda, Clifton Collins Jr., 
Ernesto Hernandez, Maria del Mar, 
Ron Perlman, and Paul Rodriguez  

Written by Phil Berger

 What Glory?

Price of Glory opens with a boxing match in Phoenix, Arizona, 1977. While the mostly Mexican/Latino ringside crowd yells and hoots, a young man takes a terrible beating. His trainer urges him on, his face is bruised and panicked, and the scene lurches into that boxing film cliché, the eight-frames-per-second knock-out punch: his jaw contorts, his blood flies, and he hits the floor. Hard. Cut to "13 years later," and the loser of that bout, Arturo Ortega (now grown up into Jimmy Smits, driving a station wagon), is a family man, taking his three young sons to their own boxing competitions. "Come on my little contenders," he smiles, as they run to him. "We got some rough-housing to do."

This opening sequence sets up Price of Glory's potentially complex premise: Arturo is a driven man, seeking salvation, revenge on the unscrupulous trainer and system who set him up with an opponent beyond his abilities and ruined his career, and recovery from his own emotional damage. Like any father living his dreams through his children, Arturo imagines he can set things right by guiding his two older, talented sons through the stormy world of professional boxing, shaping their careers to make them champions, not exploited vehicles for someone else's profit (and especially, he doesn't want them to end up where he is, trapped in some "crappy assembly line job"). He also thinks he'll be able to keep his youngest son, Johnny, out of the business altogether. While his perfect wife, Rita (Maria del Mar), encourages the boys to do their math homework and hopes they'll eventually go to college, she willingly puts up with this father-son bonding and battling in the meantime (she spends too much of her onscreen time picking up the pieces following familial spats).

Of course, due to various predictable circumstances -- including the kids's responses to their doting and demanding dad -- nothing actually happens quite the way Arturo plans. Middle son Jimmy resists his father's incessant goading ("Be a chess fighter, not a checkers fighter!"), eldest son Sonny represses his own growing reluctance, and Johnny takes up boxing just when his brothers become most fragile and insubordinate: "Because," the six-year-old informs his startled but also heartened father, "them two stink." The film cuts from the locker room where Arturo has been berating Jimmy's poor performance, to shots of Arturo with the tiny Johnny in trunks and gloves, walking through a dimly lit hallway and then down a dimly lit staircase on their way to the ring: the pair looks magical and hopeful but also vaguely foreboding. This is a kid headed for trouble, no matter how much he'll be able to please his father.

All three brothers are, in their disparate ways, determined to please Arturo as a means to find or create their own identities, as athletes, artists, and yes, men. The problem is, given their inevitable physical imperfections, lapses in talent or nerve, complex emotions as they grow up competing with and supporting one another, and absolute commitment to their father's dream -- all while trying to survive the everyone-knows-it's-crooked boxing cosmos -- the brothers are constantly absorbing Arturo's criticisms and he's rarely able to see the damage he's doing. His education, then, becomes Price of Glory's focus, and his sons are the conduit for his coming to terms with his own lost dreams and his continuing hopes for the future.

While this early part of the movie is pretty much solely focused on Arturo's ambitions (the story of the patriarch), once the sons are old enough to manage adult arguments with Arturo and each other, it turns into something else, and something unusual, that is, a kind of male melodrama. As the sons train daily at the LA gym Arturo has established for them, the Mariposa Boxing Club --Clifton Collins Jr. plays increasingly sullen Jimmy, Jon Seda is pretty boy (and practically career- and marriage-minded) Sonny, and the charismatic Ernesto Hernandez (in his film debut) as dog-loyal prodigy Johnny -- the tensions increase exponentially. While Rita certainly mediates among her menfolk -- pushing Arturo to look at himself, encouraging Sonny to have faith, or Jimmy to find an "inner" strength -- the movie's emotional focus is steadfast on the guys. No doubt, this focus is occasionally uneasy, and leads to some formulaic moments and exchanges, mostly used as transitions to more interesting moments and exchanges. But for the most part, the film works hard to avoid stereotypes, to treat its characters and its audience with respect.

Like most boxing movies, Price of Glory is about honor and anxiety, as these concerns inform that quaint notion, "character." Here, as usual, crises focus on what it means to be a man. For the Ortegas, of course, these predicaments are complicated by racism, ethnocentrism, and commercialism. They continually tussle over how to protect and provide for their family, achieve a consummately styled machismo, and, oh yes, vanquish their oppressors, incarnated emphatically -- and prosaically -- by Ron Perlman's cigar-chomping promoter, Nick Everson (aided by Pepe [Paul Rodriguez], the preemptive Latino heavy). Arturo sees demons everywhere, but unsurprisingly, his kids are less inclined to view "selling out" as sinful. In turn, Arturo has trouble forgiving their apparent wussiness: Sonny is just too damned telegenic (think: Oscar de la Hoya) and Jimmy succumbs to despair and drugs (in one stagy melodramatic scene, anyway, perhaps standing in for worse transgressions, perhaps not). Golden boy Johnny, too virtuous for his own good, must suffer for everyone else's egos and inability to compromise.

But compromise is a difficult concept in a sports story, and perhaps especially in a boxing film, by definition invested in manly stereotypes and "ideals." Written by sports journalist/novelist/playwright Phil Berger (he also worked with Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes on their autobiographies), Price of Glory is often exasperatingly banal, depicting corruptions in the business as if its higher-minded characters are perpetually startled (or at least dismayed) to discover them. While watching them struggle and emote, I was reminded of Don King's late 1999 appearance on The Chris Rock Show, during which he denied up and down that boxing is fixed, while Rock called him out for being so ridiculous. Price of Glory portrays a similar sense of incredulity, on all sides -- Everson acts offended that Arturo distrusts him, Arturo is stunned that his boys reject him -- as if all this astonishment (and the morality it intimates) might explain, maybe even justify, how the system of deceit and desire remains so entrenched.

But the mendacity and the appetite persist because the myths persist, and the myths keep on in part because media fictions laud the courage of winners (and on occasion, as with Rocky, losers with gumption). The myths script triumph over adversity and redemption by good intentions, as if such plot turns make the larger problem -- the multiple abuses built into the sports-entertainment and promotions industries -- just one more set of tribulations to overcome with moral piety and faith in Number One. It's an old-fashioned and so, substantial and even important story, yes, but it's also old, as in, it doesn't tell you anything you don't already know.

Price of Glory does try to update its situations and tone, in part with its soundtrack -- featuring a host of contemporary Latino hiphop, Mexican, and rock "en Español" acts, including Cypress Hill, Los Lobos, Quetzal, Pastilla, Ozomati, Puya, and Caminando (whose track on the CD, "El Gran Silencio," is flat out great), not to mention that great cowboy poser, Kid Rock -- and in part with its character details, especially by allowing the terminally patient and always sympathetic Rita to demonstrate, repeatedly, her own intelligence and honor, as when you see her frustration at Arturo's outrageous snub of Sonny's in-laws-to-be, her consistent generosity in negotiating between father and sons. You want to see more of Rita, but it is Arturo's film, and he's a larger than life character if ever there was one. Indeed, as intimated in that first scene, Arturo is full of potential and laid low by devices that anyone who's seen a boxing movie might have anticipated. Angry, aggressive, and full of conflict, he's also too often reduced to uplifting allegory, so that his bad fortune and culpability become a matter of poor judgment rather than a substantive indictment of the commercial and cultural structures that produce and consume his story, again and again.

In part, the movie is bound by generic demands: the triumphant boxing ring finale is inevitable, and it's hard to conceive of a movie that would take you through all the emotional travails this one does and then not give you something to feel all right about. Still, even if you might wish that it had pushed its critique of the business harder -- and obviously, I wish it had -- you can also grant that it's taking on a terrible burden from frame one, a burden that is broadly cultural, classed and raced as well as gendered. The saga of the Ortegas is certainly true, in that there exist any number of families and individuals who see boxing as a "way out," a way to get a chunk of the "American Dream," whatever that might be anymore. But what the saga leaves out is fundamental: what is this glory, and who determines its meaning and price?

Read the interview by Cynthia Fuchs.

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