By Owen Gleiberman
Updated April 14, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s easy to see why Jimmy Smits has never been a movie star. He’s too sweet and accommodating. Even on NYPD Blue, where he did some of his finest work, his reflexive smolder was dampened by decency — in part because of the show’s need to remind you, in every other scene, that he cared, really cared. But in Price of Glory, the domestic prizefight melodrama that Smits made shortly after leaving his award-winning television role, he gets to express some volatility and spiritual violence, and, for perhaps the first time, he fills the big screen.

Smits plays Arturo Ortega, a once-promising middleweight contender who lives in a scrappy Arizona border town, where he raises all three of his sons to become professional boxers. He trains them and manages them, lording it over their careers with a fanatic’s fervor, and though it’s obvious that Arturo is out to recapture his own lost dreams, Smits’ performance is more shaded than that. He makes this driven patriarch a complex, sympathetic dynamo, boiling over with love and resentment and ambition and Latin pride. He’s also every bit the Machiavellian businessman that Everson (Ron Perlman), the corrupt cigar-chomping promoter, is. Arturo isn’t just using his sons — he truly wants them to succeed — but by denying them wills of their own, he tears his family apart.

Price of Glory deserves better than that tinny, Age of Reagan title, but the movie, while heartfelt and vividly shot, takes too many rote genre turns. It views Arturo’s sons much the way he does, as mere elaborations of his ego and will. Still, two of the young actors, Jon Seda (I Like It Like That) and Ernesto Hernandez, stayed with me, and the final bout, in which Seda’s Sonny goes for the middleweight championship, is strikingly different in tone from the usual climactic blood-spurt-and-punch-athon. In this one, you feel a lifetime of familial tension wired into every right hook.