'Power of One' reduces apartheid to cliche

March 27, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

John G. ("Rocky," "The Karate Kid") Avildsen is a passionate believer in equality and in "The Power of One." He practices what he preaches; he insults blacks and whites equally.

A preposterously melodramatic and insultingly trivializing adventure in apartheid, it reduces the tragedy of South Africa into homilies, bromides and cheesy, "Rocky"-style uplift. It's "The Karate Kid and Rocky on the Road to Pretoria."

The movie is a Bildungsroman about brave young PK, a !c hopelessly idealized British youth in South Africa who is so politically correct he could not exist outside of a hack filmmaker's imagination. He's a poster boy for the Brotherhood of Man. He's sensitive. He's musical. He's a champion boxer.

PK is played at three stages in his life by different actors. By far the most impressive is a sweet British child named Guy Witcher. He's a true child of Africa, no matter the color of his skin. The movie is at its most persuasive as it evokes his wonderfully natural embrace of his surroundings. In one exquisite sequence, he must face an elephant; his courage and the magic of the beast are brilliant and thrilling.

Eventually, he becomes the ward of an interned German Jew (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and thus spends his formative years in a South African prison where Mueller-Stahl teaches him music, and Morgan Freeman, as a wise old Zulu, teaches him boxing. However well-intentioned, the endless imagery of an old black daddy patiently tutoring his white charge is so electric with the memory of the worst kind of Hollywood patronizing that it sets off alarms, not that Avildsen even notices. Subtlety is as alien to him as Swahili.

It gets worse. Soon, Simon Fenton (an older PK) is leading huge mobs of happy blacks in singing. They respond to him as if he is their savior, sent to deliver them from evil. It's absurd that no black character is given an identity beyond cliche; and it's repulsive that once again racism is viewed as tragic because it offends sensitive whites.

An American actor, Steven Dorff, has the longest time as PK as an 18-year-old. He tries very hard, but by that time the movie has become so absurd it invites laughter.

Avildsen should have remembered that what made Rocky memorable was his weakness, his fear, his vulnerability. Abetted by screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen, Avildsen turns PK into a paragon of rectitude, which rather than drawing us in, pushes us out.

From its huckstering images of a white messiah to its visual banality to its excessive brutality, it gives shamelessness a new meaning.

'The Power of One'

Starring Morgan Freeman and Steven Dorff.

Directed by John G. Avildsen.

Released by Warner Brothers.

Rated R.

*

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