Here's some startling movie trivia—startling, at least, to those of us who don't work in "the business." In the filming of a boxing movie, even one as violently authentic as Raging Bull, not a single jab so much as brushes an actor's face. The trick is camera angles, and fight sequences rehearsed right down to the eye blink. That's where Jimmy Nickerson comes in.
Nickerson, 41 years old and a stuntman by trade, is the Balanchine of Hollywood boxing choreography and the D.W. Griffith of ring-sequence directing. He pioneered the new aggressiveness of celluloid prizefighting in Rocky and Rocky II and elevated boxing realism to an art in Raging Bull. When the subject is film fights, he's the champ.
His most recent movie, Gladiator, scheduled to open in March, was shot earlier this year in Chicago, primarily on the city's bleak South Side.
On the ground floor of a seedy warehouse, a guard is posted by the door. Four flights of sagging wooden planks that pass for stairs lead to a huge loft, and in its center is an elevated boxing ring. The room's yellow paint is peeling. Sunlight is refracted by glass panes that are smeared with dust. Bottles of chilled Evian water and a caterer's sandwich trays are set incongruously off to one side of the room.
"Now, Jimmy," says Nickerson. "You're comfortable with the right hook?"
"Yeah. No problem." Jimmy is actor James Marshall, perhaps best known as biker-heartthrob James Hurley of television's Twin Peaks.
"O.K. Now come in with the left," Nickerson continues. "I bob right. Your left again. I bob left. Jab left, jab left. I bob and weave. You come in with a sweeping hook. I hit your body and push you into the ropes. Got it? Let's try it."
Dressed in black sweats, a pinch of Hawken chewing tobacco tucked in his lower lip, Nickerson rehearses the moves with Marshall in super slow motion. The film's director, Rowdy Herrington, a cellular phone in his pants pocket, looks on. Nickerson's punches stop a millimeter short of Marshall's face, and Marshall reels from the mock impact. "That should push you back onto your right leg," Nickerson points out. After a few run-throughs Nickerson hits on a sequence that works, and jots notes on a legal pad.
Gladiator is the story of Tommie Riley, played by Marshall, who learns to survive in a blighted neighborhood where warring street gangs compete in illegal, underground prizefights. The noted character actors Brian Dennehy and Robert Loggia play ruthless promoters. Most of the story unfolds in or around a ring. There are to be 12 fight sequences in Gladiator. By contrast, there were two in Rocky and eight in Raging Bull.
This feast of fisticuffs makes Nickerson's job more challenging. "There's only so much you can do with your left and right hands," he says as he watches Marshall rehearse. Nickerson bears an uncanny resemblance to James Caan, the actor he has stunt-doubled for in six movies, including the rough-and-tumble Rollerball. "We use a few dirtier tactics in this movie for variety, because we don't have to worry about a referee handing out fouls." The illegal fights of Gladiator are, in fact, little more than human cockfights. The boxers use elbows, head butts and booming lefts to the groin. "But it's not World Wrestling Federation stuff," Nickerson says defensively. "It's never gratuitous."