Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:22 - Released 3/2/01

I have to admit that Lee Stanley's Carman: The Champion, the film project of the popular contemporary Christian singer/TV evangelist known as "Carman," is not as terrible as I expected. That's not to say that it's terrifically good. But when I read of the man's desire to incorporate his film into what he calls "the largest evangelism effort of the new millennium," I thought, oh no — the film would be little more than a feature-length religious pitch with no technique or production value. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it is merely a lower-quality, spiritually charged version of Rocky about a former champion boxer who returns to the ring in order to secure the ownership of a ministry formerly run by his deceased father. The script (penned by Carman with help from director Stanley and others) is a heavy-handed, overwrought affair, featuring things like surly mafia men who control the fights and murder people but are never prosecuted, cars that burst into huge fireballs when they have a collision just like on The Simpsons, and (get this) a fighter with a brain injury called "Radical Parkinsonism," the effect of which is that if he gets hit in the head, he'll die. Talk about a bad career choice. There is, however, very little preaching going on in this movie at all, unless you count the suggestion of such by the fact that its writer and star is an evangelist trying to spread the Word — a factor that by itself has a tendency to color the whole experience.

Carman, whose name is apparently only in the title for marketing purposes, plays former cruiserweight champion Orlando Leone, who left the fighting game in disgrace after a losing season followed by his father's mysterious death. Having taken over the old man's L.A. ministry 10 years ago (in addition to his day job as a hotel security guard), he finds that dwindling membership and the threat of foreclosure are forcing him to consider abandoning his dream of a beautiful new youth center. Meanwhile we are introduced to Keshon Banks (Jeremy Williams), the spoiled current champ who lives a decadent life of women, drink, and parties. When one of Banks's indiscretions happens in the hotel guarded by Orlando, he is called to the scene where a fistfight makes headlines. Soon Orlando's sinister brother Freddie (Michael Nouri), who works ostensibly as Banks's manager but really has ties to the mob, offers to pay off the mortgage on the ministry if Orlando meets up with Banks for one fight.

Alongside the boxing scenario we have a sub plot about a young boy named Cesar (Romeo Fabian), pestered by a gang of drug-running teens. Orlando befriends him and puts him to work at the ministry, thereby meeting the boy's sultry, sexy señorita of a mother Allia (Mexican actress Patricia Manterola, making her first appearance in an American film), who is at first dubious because she had a bad experience with a church man in the past, but soon accepts her role as Orlando's version of Rocky's Adrian.

Those who are followers of Carman will probably enjoy this film, and those who are not will probably never see it. While its star has charm and good looks, as an actor he is little more than adequate. Moreover, his screenplay, with its maudlin, oversimplified character interaction and after-school-special tone, has little to recommend it to anyone other than his fans (even die-hard boxing devotees would have to be pretty hard up to seek this out at the video store). So in effect, one could say that Carman is literally preaching to the choir. But if his movie has the ability to sucker-punch a couple more souls into salvation, then more power to him. **½

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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