In the opening scenes of Price of Glory, set in the late 1970s, a young prizefighter named Arturo Ortega (Jimmy Smits) loses a career-making bout. He earns a few grand, but he's plainly washed up, and we're meant to see that it's his greedy manager's fault; like Antonio Banderas in Ron Shelton's recent boxing film Play It To the Bone, Arturo's 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.
But Arturo is reborn as a boxing manager: The film traces his resurrection over the next couple of decades, as 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 González González) is troubled by 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.
Because he couldn't hack it as a champ himself, 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, he rebuffs the advances of the shady 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 and slams them up against lockers; he brainwashes them, dismissing anything that differs from his opinion. He transparently does it all for himself, even while he's 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 pretty contrived. The point, though, is that all of Arturo's sons end up damaged by their old man's obsession, and then, at the end, we're supposed to be moved by the conventional sports-movie finale. What's annoying is that it sort of works. Despite the plot hokum and the self-conscious dialogue, this leisurely paced, handsomely shot film, scripted by former New York Times boxing writer Phil Berger and directed by young first-timer Carlos Avila, is ultimately satisfying.
Much of the credit for this must go to NYPD Blue alumnus Smits. He's always been a strong actor, fiery yet intelligent and precise, and if Arturo isn't a great role, it's at least a substantial part that offers him plenty to do. The sons butt heads with him convincingly: Seda -- another TV cop-show grad, having played Falzone on TV's Homicide -- is a poised, intense presence; no doubt his background as a former Golden Gloves amateur lends an authenticity to the role. González is likeably 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 lend welcome assists, 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 and conventional and unadventurous. It can't really be defended, except that it's comfortably enjoyable. It draws you in gradually, like some dumb old movie you stay up late watching on TV because you need to see how it ends -- though, deep down (and not so), you already know.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.