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'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 an Arizona town.
The film then traces the resistible rise of Arturo himself as a boxing manager. Over the next couple 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, accurately, that Arturo rates him less highly than his brothers in the ring. The youngest, Johnny (Ernesto Hernandez), is a 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.
He screams at and belittles his boys, slams them up against lockers, and brainwashes them, demonizing anything that differs from his opinion. Turmoil and tragedy ensue; 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 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 is at least a big, meaty part that offers him plenty to do. Though well-acted and well-crafted, Price of Glory is predictable, conventional, and unadventurous. It can't really be defended, except that it's comfortably enjoyable.