Given the oftentimes provocative and confrontational nature of his films and indeed, his personality, Abel Ferrara might not seem like the number one contender for television projects however a look at his filmography reveals many a TV credit, several of which are rather interesting. Ferrara's most high profile TV work came in 1985 when he helmed 2 episodes of Miami Vice during the second season and the feature length pilot episode of the NBC series Crime Story was directed by Ferrara in 1986. Ferrara followed up China Girl (1987) with The Loner (1988), a TV feature that once again centered around cops and Ferrara was also behind a fascinatingly cryptic segment of the HBO anthology film Subway Stories: Tales from the Underground (1997) entitled “Love on the A-Train”. One of the more curious TV projects Ferrara was involved with was the third episode of the first season of the short lived ABC series FBI: The Untold Stories, with Ferrara directing portions of “The Judge Wood Case”, detailing the assassination of Judge John H. Wood Jr., who was shot and killed in 1979 by Charles Harrelson, father of actor Woody Harrelson. Ferrara's best TV work however came in 1986 in the form of The Gladiator, a TV film that, coming in the wake of films like Ms. 45 (1981) and Fear City (1984), feels the most at home among the rest of his output.
Eager to get out on the road after getting his learners permit, Jeff Benton goes for a driving lesson with his older brother Rick. After speeding up at a yellow light, the two find themselves being aggressively followed by a mysterious driver who begins rear-ending Rick's truck, the distraction causing Jeff to miss a red light and the two are stuck by an 18-wheeler, killing Jeff. Stricken with grief and rage after getting out of the hospital, Rick, a mechanic by trade, turns vigilante, vowing to avenge his brothers death and soon takes to the streets in his newly suped up truck, dubbing himself “The Gladiator” after his late brothers soccer team, and quickly gains the attention of the public and police, taking out reckless drivers with his main target being the “Death Car” driver who killed his brother and has been responsible for more fatal hit-and-runs in the area.
Despite the fact that Ferrara has referred to The Gladiator as “pure prostitution” and “strictly for the paycheck”, the film hardly feels like an anonymous work for hire job and a closer inspection makes the film seem like the intended follow-up to the aforementioned Ms. 45 and Fear City. The vengeance angle of the story obviously places the film somewhat in the territory of Ms. 45 (though to be certain both films are very different from each other) but it's Fear City the film feels the closest too, especially as it relates to the main characters of both films. Much like Tom Berrenger's Matt Rossi in Fear City, Ken Wahl's Rick is in constant conflict with himself. Pushed to extremes to right a wrong, the constantly moody Rick eventually enters that morally gray area so many Ferrara characters find themselves in as he begins to question if his vigilante tactics are doing the good he intended, making Rick fit right in with the likes of the titular Bad Lieutenant (1992) and Eddie Israel in Dangerous Game (1993). What's also worth noting is that Ferrara doesn't seem to be making any particular judgments as it relates to vigilante justice, choosing instead to focus solely on Rick's state of mind as the vigilantism increases just as he did with Zoe Lund's Thana in Ms. 45. This sets the film apart from so many other TV movies which often have a “message” behind them. Never once does the film come off as preachy in any way.
An interesting thing regarding the film according to Ferrara that was revealed in Brad Stevens' Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision, Ferrara took on the project partly so Nicholas St. John could get an advance to write the first draft of King of New York (1990), though St. John had no part in writing The Gladiator. Ferrara also humorously stated that the film was partly a means to get away from winter in New York for a few weeks and smash a lot of cars and it should be said that although the majority of the film is quite somber tonally speaking, the action scenes involving Rick taking out reckless drivers do have a nice energy to them and the scenes of Rick suping up his truck and the truck itself is a gloriously 80's creation as is the final showdown between Rick and the “Death Car” driver in a junkyard. All things considered, The Gladiator has had a pretty remarkable shelf life. Originally airing on ABC on February 3, 1986, the film was eventually broadcast overseas and unlike several Ferrara films, has had several DVD releases. Obviously being a made-for-TV film puts it in a fairly low-key category compared to other Ferrara features but The Gladiator has much to offer and plenty of Ferrara's personal touches making the end product seem much more than an excuse to spend a few weeks in LA.