In one corner: "Gladiator," full of firmly strapped sandals and swords tightly clutched by muscular arms that can't wait to take a swipe at an enemy, an adversary - or the camera itself if it gets in the way. Not since the 1959 classic "Ben-Hur" has such an all-stops-out action epic so dominated the Academy Awards fight - at least if you discount "Braveheart," an unexpected victor that Oscar voters are still scratching their heads over.
Speculation is fierce as pundits wonder if the same academy that recently honored "American Beauty" and "Shakespeare in Love" will now bestow its laurels on one of the most bone-crunching entertainments in recent memory.
It's a hard question that might stump an ancient Roman philosopher, but the movie's whopping 12 nominations provide a pretty good clue.
In the other corner: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," sporting colorful Chinese costumes and the most dancelike fight scenes this side of a Hong Kong martial-arts festival - with characters zipping up walls, jumping over parapets, and leaping among leafy boughs with a physical grace that Western superheroes like Batman and Superman couldn't begin to master. Will the academy forget its proud Hollywood roots, its general aversion to subtitles, and its longtime preference for homegrown productions - and allow an overseas visitor to sweep the Oscar race?
It's a hard question that might stump a wise Asian mystic, but the movie's impressive 10 nominations point to a possible answer.
Until the Oscar nominations were unveiled last month, few observers expected this unpredictable face-off between two action pictures of such very different types.
To be sure, the Gladiator vs. the Tiger is not the only interesting angle in the sweepstakes.
Races in many important categories are wide open, or at least too close to call with any degree of confidence. This will lend an unusual amount of suspense to Sunday night's parade of celebrities chanting, "The envelope, please...."
But let's face it: The evolving fortunes of Ridley Scott's sword-and-sandal extravaganza and Ang Lee's literate excursion into kung-fu fantasyland will be the backbone of the Oscar broadcast as it takes its meandering course. And the overall result of the race could raise some fascinating questions.
If the gut-wrenching "Gladiator" wins, does this mean Hollywood genuinely respects the craft and artistry that went into it? Or does it mean academy voters like to take the easy way out, keeping their major kudos in their own backyard?
Are they ready for a picture like "Tiger," which stretches the imagination with regard to everything from its cinematic style to its philosophy of life?
And conversely, is the offbeat "Tiger" doomed from the start - admired for its clever blending of exoticism and entertainment, but ultimately too different from the easy-to-absorb artifice that Hollywood loves to celebrate?
A look through academy history suggests a few tentative answers.
One finding that could work against both "Gladiator" and "Tiger" is that action pictures traditionally haven't won.
True, the very first best-picture Oscar went to the World War I adventure "Wings" in 1928, and the tally goes up if you place other serious-type war movies into the action genre - the moody "From Here to Eternity" and David Lean's intelligent "The Bridge on the River Kwai" in the '50s, for instance. The number rises even more if you count thoughtful gangster melodramas like Francis Ford Coppola's first two "Godfather" installments, which were named best picture in 1972 and 1974, respectively.
And then there's the closest "Gladiator" model, "Ben-Hur," which was nominated for the same number of awards as "Gladiator" in the very same categories - a coincidence, perhaps, but a telling one, especially since the 1959 hit swept no fewer than 11 of the dozen prizes it contended for.
"Ben-Hur's" action-movie status may actually have helped its historic victory, since the pictures it defeated came from very different categories: the thriller "Anatomy of a Murder," the much-loved "Diary of Anne Frank," and the fondly received dramas "Room at the Top" and "The Nun's Story." Given the choice, ballot-casters opted for flashing blades, speeding chariots, and he-manly combat over a diverse array of other possibilities.
Still, action for its own sake hasn't been especially high among Oscar's priorities over the years. And this raises doubts about the glitz-and-glitter image traditionally linked with Hollywood in general and the Academy Awards in particular.
Breaking out of the mold
Some people assume that the Oscars inevitably gravitate toward superficial show-biz entertainment, with box-office profitability as the primary reference point.
But is that view too simple? Does the academy swing out of the mere-entertainment mold from time to time, honoring movies that broaden audiences' horizons and expand the boundaries of cinema itself?
The answer seems to be a highly qualified yes. On one hand, truly audacious and experimental films tend to be passed over for best-picture nominations, even when adventurous moviegoers embrace them. Think of Stanley Kubrick's mind-bending "2001: A Space Odyssey" in 1968, which competed in creative categories like writing and directing, but failed to score a best-picture nomination.
Other cutting-edge productions, such as Robert Altman's innovative 1975 musical "Nashville" and Martin Scorsese's brutal 1976 masterpiece "Taxi Driver," did garner best-picture nominations, but lost to more crowd-pleasing fare - the feisty "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and the boxing bonanza "Rocky," respectively.
In these and numerous other cases, the academy paid its respects to movies that opened up new concepts of what cinema can be. But when the final votes were counted, this enthusiasm proved to have limits: While truly distinctive pictures are allowed into the race from time to time, they're usually also-rans in the last analysis.
If this pattern holds up Sunday night, look for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to fare well in secondary races, but expect "Gladiator" to squelch it in the climactic best-picture category, and perhaps in the total number of Oscars it receives.
It's possible that another contender will edge out both of them, of course, especially if the academy reverts to its traditional snobbery toward the action genre. But it's hard to imagine an innocuous romance like "Chocolat," a serious political picture like "Traffic," or a human-interest drama like "Erin Brockovich" turning the tables on such feisty competitors - especially since a Julia Roberts best-actress win for "Brockovich" is widely considered all but inevitable, allowing voters to swing in other directions on their best-picture ballots.
Even if "Gladiator" sweeps the evening, though, the prominence of "Crouching Tiger" in the race will have raised an invigorating possibility, suggesting that Hollywood is becoming less parochial than it has seemed in recent years and may be returning to a more cosmopolitan and even international outlook.
A few decades ago, non-American films competed quite often for the best-picture prize - think of "Cries and Whispers" and "The Emigrants" in the '70s, and "Z" and "Tom Jones" in the '60s, for example.
If such an atmosphere takes root again in Hollywood, much of the credit must go to the excitement generated there by "Crouching Tiger," a Taiwan-Hong Kong production full of subtitled dialogue, Asian imagery, and an approach to action-movie violence that couldn't be more different from the big-studio norm.
Even if it loses, "Crouching Tiger" could be the not-so-hidden dragon that reminds American moviemakers of how much they can learn from new ideas and old ideals nurtured far from Hollywood's soundstages.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor