Against the Ropes

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews Robin Clifford 
Against the Ropes
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews Laura Clifford 
Jackie Kallen (Meg Ryan) has always loved boxing. As a little girl she spent all her free time at her father’s gym where he trained her uncle Ray-Ray (Sean Bell) but, being a girl, she could only take part in the fight game from a distance. Now she is the executive assistant to a sleazy fight promoter and is still only on the periphery of the sport. That is until she is given the chance to manage a fighter of her own in “Against the Ropes.”

Jackie has always known that she has what it takes to be a successful boxing manager, but the Sport of Kings has always been a male dominated arena and she has never had the chance to prove her ability. When she is summoned to the restaurant table of a big-time fight manager and made man, Sam Larocca (Tony Shalhoub), she mouths off to the big shot and declares that she could do a better job than he. Taking up the gauntlet, Larocca makes her a deal: he will give her the contract of one of his failing fighters for the sum of one dollar. She takes the offer but soon finds out that her boxer is, in fact, a crack junkie and of no use to her.

When she goes to the home of the strung out boxer (Tory Kittles), he thinks Jackie is a drug courier, threatens her and demands his crack. But, before the menacing fighter can do her any harm, in walks drug dealer Luther Shaw (Omar Epps) who proceeds to beat the snot out of the pro. Luther impresses Jackie with his raw pugilistic talent and she decides that he is the one who can help her break into the boxing game. He rejects her offer at first but she persists until Luther finally relents.

Jackie’s next mission is to get her new boxer an experienced trainer and she approaches Felix Reynolds (Charles S. Dutton), now retired. He, too, refuses but she convinces him to, at least, meet the prospect and see if Luther has what it takes. The first meeting between Luther and Felix is a rocky one but a truce is soon called and the training begins. As Reynolds starts to hone Luther’s inherent fighting skills, Jackie begins her struggle to get their first professional bout. Of course, between being a woman and having offended Larocca, she can’t find a single taker within two hundred miles of Cleveland. She finally pulls in a marker from a childhood friend and garners a match for her fighter.

Luther wins his first match decisively and he is on the road to a boxing career, taking on all contenders and winning. As Luther’s wins start to pile up, Jackie takes to the limelight and begins to gain her own reputation as the only woman manager in the WBC. As her popularity increases, her attention to Luther’s boxing career decreases accordingly and she is more interested in her own aggrandizement. Luther is less than pleased about living in the shadow of his manager’s fame and takes her to task, essentially firing her.

Jackie sees the error of her ways and tries to do the right thing, making a deal with Larocca ensuring that Luther will get a shot at the WBC middleweight title. The unscrupulous Sam, almost immediately, reneges on the deal and sets Shaw up for a beating. Can Jackie fix what she broke? Will Luther become a champ? Will Larocca get his comeuppance? Does Jackie shop at Frederick’s of Hollywood? These are the questions that get answered in “Against the Ropes” but, in the end, who cares?

Meg Ryan has always had a penchant for showing her best in romantic comedies over the years, from “When Harry Met Sally” to “Sleepless In Seattle.” On the dramatic front her career has taken a more uneven turn with a solid perf (one that is under recognized) in “Courage Under Fire” and less than stellar jobs in films like “Proof of Life” and the horrible “In the Cut.” Unfortunately, she continues that latter pattern in “Against the Ropes.” Ryan’s portrayal of Jackie Kallen is a cross between mugging for the camera and costumes consisting of miniskirts and plunging necklines. Acting does not seem to be a consideration for this role. I thing Ryan sees this as a vehicle akin to “Erin Brockovitch” and what it did for Julia Roberts. This is not the case.

The always-likable Omar Epps is not given much to do except to be Jackie’s means to an end. Charles S. Dutton, the film’s director, does double duty as trainer Felix but is, like Epps, only there for the benefit of Ryan. Tony Shalhoub plays outside his usual comedic and offbeat characters as Sam Larocca. He maintains a cold, calculating exterior that hides the cold, calculating interior of a man who has the power to make or break anyone in the fight game. Joseph Cortese is a sleazy standout in the small role as Jackie’s boxing promoter boss, Irv Abel. Tim Daly is underutilized as local sports reporter Gavin Reese, the man that Jackie screws over on her rise to the top. Kerry Washington, too, is underused as Kallen’s friend and Luther’s eventual love interest. The solid supporting cast is helpless to save “Against the Ropes.”

Another disappointment in “Against the Ropes” is the weak fight choreography by Roy T. Anderson and company. Under Dutton’s hand, the excitement of the ring is given two-dimensional treatment. There is none of the realistic drama of “Raging Bull,” the working class honesty of “Rocky” or the camp factor of “Rocky 3.” The thing that the film should give longer shrift to - boxing - takes a back seat to Jackie’s rise to fame.

Techs are straightforward but without note. Jack N. Green’s camera is used primarily to frame nicely lighted close-ups of Ryan’s face and not much more. The actress’s costumes are mostly rejects from the Frederick’s fall collection, showing that Jackie has incredibly bad taste in clothes.

“Against the Ropes” spent 6 months in release hell before finally getting plunked down in the winter doldrums. The utter mediocrity of the film tells you why. I give it a C-. 

When young Jackie Kallen's (Skye McCole Bartusiak, "Riding in Cars with Boys") boxing uncle Ray Ray (Sean Bell, "Bulletproof Monk") would ask her 'What are you gonna do when you grow up?' she always gave him the answer he expected - 'Kick butt and break hearts.'  Twenty some odd years later, Jackie's (Meg Ryan) got a job in her beloved boxing world, but as a woman, she's hit the glass ceiling.  She's "Against the Ropes."

This long delayed flick would have seemed to be past its expiration date, but surprisingly, "Against the Ropes" delivers a few jabs before it's TKO'ed.  Meg Ryan follows up her genre-bending performance in "In the Cut" with another step outside the romantic comedy realm, portraying the real life female boxing manager like her own "Erin Brockovich."  Unfortunately, the performance may not be convincing, but it is worth a look.

Jackie knows her sport, but her boss Irving Abel (Joseph Cortese, "American History X") masks her abilities in front of boxing promoter Sam Larocca (Tony Shalhoub, "Spy Kids 3: Game Over"), an intimidating guy with rumored mob ties.  Kallen speaks up to defend a fighter Larocca's dissing post-bout and soon he's saving face by daring her to take over the guy's contract for $1. Supported by local sports reporter Gaven Ross (Timothy Daly, TV's "Wings"), she does, but she really surprises everybody by convincing her loser's drug dealer, Luther Shaw (Omar Epps, "Big Trouble"), to let her manage a boxing career for him.  When Larocca blocks her professional chances in Cleveland, Kallen takes Shaw to Buffalo and soon he's too big to ignore, but Kallen lets the media attention, which is focused on her, blind her to her boxer's needs and contributions. Ever the fighter, Kallen does some soul searching and finds herself a champion once again.

Ryan, fitted out with heavy eyeliner, Brokovich-provocative wardrobe and bangs in her eyes, gives an interesting performance, but one that constantly demands analysis rather than allowing the audience to give itself over to it.  Ryan puts on a kittenish street voice (not having heard Kallen, I cannot profess as to its accuracy) and shows the right amount of conflict, a hesitant confidence, if you will, but she never succeeds in truly sinking into the skin of the character.  She does get moments right, particularly when using her sexuality and superior attitude at press conferences.  Her performance suffers from the same slightly off feel that pervades the film.

Epps, introduced as a pummeling street thug, maintains a swaggering boxer's stance throughout the film, convincing as potential raw talent.  Director Charles S. Dutton adds genial support as Felix, a retired coach dragged back into sports by Jackie's fondness and admiration.  It's entertaining to see Shalhoub take and deliver on an uncharacteristic bad guy role and Cortese also serves up able support with his blustering misogyny.  Daly's solid as a likable Cleveland sportscaster serving as Jackie's moral compass.  Kerry Washington ("The Human Stain") has little to do as Jackie's fellow secretary who becomes Shaw's love interest.

As adapted by Cheryl Edwards ("Save the Last Dance") with Jackie Kallen, facts are massaged to pump up the drama (the real Kallen began as an entertainment journalist).  Edwards presents Kallen's smarts in a switcheroo scene involving a glass of orange juice and the unlikeliness of the underdog boxer/coach/manager trio by having the characters compete for control of a car radio.  Dutton paces the film well, but he milks more tension in his press conference scenes than he does in the ring and the film's transitions don't always flow well, a disservice to the performances.  Ruth E. Carter ("Daddy Day Care") gives Ryan an 80's bondage style with leather and clothes featuring cutouts and lacing.  Original Music by Michael Kamen ("Open Range") is a muted version of the "Rocky" school.

"Against the Ropes" is better than its continual delays would suggest but it is unfortunate that the time wasn't spent giving the film a few more polishes.


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