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Against the Ropes
Stars: Meg Ryan, Omar Epps, Tony Shalhoub, Tim Daly, Charles S. Dutton, Joe Cortese, and Kerry Washington
Director: Charles S. Dutton (feature film directorial debut)
Scriptwriter: Cheryl Edwards
Running Time: two hours
Rating: PG 13
Apparently, Meg Ryan wants an Oscar. How else to explain her last two films. Last year, she imitated Halle Berry by appearing in an arty, sexually explicit movie entitled In the Cut. She got naked in a long sex scene that provided the centerpiece of the film, just like Berry and Billy Bob Thornton did in Monster. Now that I think about it, Ryan's co-star Mark Ruffalo even reminds me a bit of a young Billy Bob. Unfortunately, In the Cut was submarined by its embarrassingly obvious Freudianisms (now, what does the bright red lighthouse remind you of?) and its inexplicable plot twists.
Now, Ryan is trying to work Julia Roberts's magic by starring in a barely-concealed imitation of Erin Brockovich. In Against the Ropes, which opened last Friday, Ryan plays Jackie Kallen, a based-on-a-true-story brassy woman who wears flashy clothes and does her best to upset a male-dominated world. In this case, Kallen isn't a legal secretary but a secretary of a boxing promoter. But as we see in the movie's opening scene, Jackie's been a fan of boxing ever since she was a little girl hanging out at her dad's gym. Now that she's grown up, she does her best to stay true to the sport, despite the idiocy of her boss and the mob connections of her superiors. When she gets into an argument with the head honcho (Tony Shalhoub), he belittles her by offering a fighter's contract for a dollar. Being a head-strong woman, she takes that challenge.
The boxer in question turns out to be Luther Shaw (Omar Epps), a rough-around-the-edges type but a boxer with potential. Of course, it's up to the white woman to help fulfill that potential. Sorry to play the race card, but it's hard to avoid it in this film. Yes, Kallen brings in old hand Felix Reynolds (Charles Dutton) to manage and train Luther, but there's something oddly old-fashioned about the way the movie embraces racial dynamics. But more on that later.
The film's narrative follows the normal trajectory. Jackie, Felix, and Luther bond over a training montage and early victories in Buffalo, NY. Of course, they're angling for a shot at the title, which just so happens to mean they'll be fighting the mob boss's boxer. Mr. Boss doesn't want to give them a shot, however, so Jackie has to use all her charm and guile. Unfortunately, this charm and guile leads to dialogue like "He's da bomb" and "I'd rather have that kind of kaput than your kind of stupid." I have no idea what that means. Along the way, Jackie gets caught up in the media attention and turns her back on the little people who helped her. This leads to disaster, of course, but you knew that already.
Indeed, it's hard to believe Against the Ropes is based on a true story, as the story so perfectly matches a typical Hollywood flick. I guess life does imitate art. Even the movie's climax involves Jackie striding through a boxing crowd as the music swells (I sure could use some swelling music when I stride through a crowd), and then she delivers the speech for the ages that inspires Luther to battle his way to glory. Otherwise, he'd still be a poor boy on the Cleveland streets. As with most bad movies, we have a standing ovation at the end, and you shouldn't have to guess who it's for. The star gets what the star wants.
I'm sad to say that Charles Dutton is somewhat responsible for all this. Cheryl Edwards wrote the screenplay and it's clear that the studio execs interfered, but he directed. The boxing sequences are particularly amateurish with fighters flopping like fish on a rowboat. To Dutton's credit, he has a nice way with actors. This isn't Ryan's finest performance, but it's not bad, especially given the dialogue she has to spout. Omar Epps (The Wood) gives a strong portrayal of a boxer on the way up, and the supporting cast of Kerry Washington (Save the Last Dance), Tim Daly (Basic), and Shalhoub (The Man Who Wasn't There) are all solid. It goes without saying the Dutton himself is fantastic. Every scene that he's in is a pleasure. Unfortunately, the movie itself is not.
J. Robert Parks 2/22/2004
Jackie Kallen made her mark in the boxing world by managing prizefighters, something unheard of in the sport of one-on-one in the ring. Not only did Jackie manage fighters -- she managed champion prizefighters, and this is where we find money and the limelight. Against the Ropes is the story of Jackie Kallen (Meg Ryan from In the Cut) and the first boxer she managed, Luther Shaw (Omar Epps from Scream 2). Shaw is actually a composite of boxers, and scriptwriter Cheryl Edwards (Save the Last Dance) has done a commendable job giving us a person with attitude and skill who has to hone his fine points to become a great boxer. Director Charles S. Dutton (Gothika) plays a come-from-retirement trainer, and Tony Shalhoub (television's Monk) is a boxing manager who dislikes Jackie Kallen. Kerry Washington (The Human Stain) plays Jackie's aide and eventually Luther's girlfriend. Tim Daly (Basic) is a sportscaster who tries to give Jackie's fighters a break.
We can just about put the story together ourselves. Young girl enjoys boxing world in Cleveland, but her father thinks girls should be spectators. Girl grows into womanhood, still in the boxing world as a secretary but actually runs the show since the boss is never there. Girl works in a world where women are objects of whistles and jokes until one day, girl stands up for herself and ends up buying a boxer's contract from Shalhoub for one dollar. This boxer turns out to be a dud, and Jackie is told she overpaid for the contract. It is his friend Luther who catches Jackie's eye. She sees potential here and persuades him to sign a contract with her, then gets retired trainer Dutton to work with him. Soon, Luther is on his way, and so is Jackie. There is a memorable line in this section: "Money comes and goes, that's why they call it cash flow." It seems that the world of public relations is more Jackie's style, but soon a choice has to be made -- work with the boxer or work the press.
Against the Ropes gives Meg Ryan a good role with which to work. Gone is the little-girl look, and here is the tough-as-nails gal who plays the same game as the men. I don't know how the real Jackie Kallen dressed, but the outfits Meg Ryan wears are more skin than clothing. Ryan didn't need the outfits, since she does the under-appreciated secretary and the over-achieving manager just fine. The line between loyalty to the fighter and loyalty to herself is eventually crossed, and Ryan's facial expressions tell it all. The role also shows Jackie Kallen as putting down her fighters in public and seeing the aftermath.
On the other side of the rope is Omar Epps (see press conference comments) who portrays Luther, first as someone who thinks he can't be a winner, then to someone with confidence in himself and the sport. The fight scenes are well photographed, and first-time director Charles S. Dutton shows an eye for moving the camera in close quarters.
There is a special scene that shows the level of acting in Against the Ropes. Jackie gets Luther a townhouse and hands him papers about mortgages, taxes, etc. Luther, at first acts as though he knows what to do, and then the façade starts to crack, and he admits that he doesn't know what she is talking about. Jackie gently tells him all this will come in time and she will help him. The moment is well handled by both actors, as are the scenes between Dutton and Epps, as trainer and trainee. Kerry Washington has a few moments but is largely and unfortunately in the background. Tim Daly could have also made more of an impression but is on the back burner. You can't mistake Tony Shalhoub, though, in the film, as he has the look of a man who wants to control everything and woe to the person who says otherwise.
Against the Ropes has good fight scenes, which, according to Epps, weren't all choreographed. Boxing is a rough sport, and it shows here as the fighters batter each other. Why do they do it? It's a chess game where psychology is as important as conditioning and training.
Against the Ropes has more than a passing comparison to the Rocky films. There is intense training, then the first professional fight; money begins to roll in and the toll fighting takes on the body. Some humorous moments in the movie look as though they were added for audience appeal. You can't help but have product endorsement in a sports movie where a brand name is always part of the training gear. Do we need a cliched scene of trying to keep someone out of a building? I would have liked to see Jackie's future as a manager, but who knows, there may be a sequel? Perhaps, called Off the Ropes?
Copyright 2004 Marie Asner Filmer456@aol.com February 15, 2004
The delayed Against the Ropes finally gets its day in theaters and is well worth the wait. The film has been completed for over a year, but has sat unreleased waiting for a time that would be conducive to a good opening.
Normally this is a sign of a flop in the making but I am happy to say that the film delivers and is easily the best boxing film since the original Rocky.
Inspired by the life of Jackie Kallen (Meg Ryan), the film tells the story of how Kallen became a power player in the male-dominated world of boxing. Kallen was behind many successful boxers such as Tommy Hearns and Andrew Toney to name a few. The story centers on the discovery of a promising unknown named Luther Shaw (Omar Epps), a tough but intelligent man from the inner city who Kallen sees as a person with championship potential. Shaw is skeptical of Kallen as he knows that Larocca (Tony Shalhoub) runs boxing in the area. Larocca has gone out of his way to ensure that Kallen does not get a fight organized, as he does not want to see her succeed. The animosity between them dates back to a bet Larocca made that Kallen could not do a better when she offered Larocca some advice on how to help a fading boxer.
The charm and tenacity of Kallen pays off and she is able to setup a fight for show and proceeds to train him with the help of veteran trainer Felix Reynolds (Charles Dutton). Before long, Shaw is moving up the rankings and is looking like a legitimate challenger for the titleholder who happens to be managed by Larocca.
The success of Shaw leads Kallen to become noticed by the media and in time she starts to let the attention go to her head and her ego threatens to overshadow the success she and Shaw have had in the ring.
Any fans of boxing films can see that the characters are on a collision course to meet up in a big winner take all match at the films end and that there of course will be obstacles to overcome both in and out of the ring.
What sets this film apart from others in the genre is the great chemistry between Epps and Ryan. They have a very natural and realistic relationship that is all business and avoids romantic clichés that would only serve to hinder the story. This is a film about Boxing and how Kallen overcame all odds to succeed. Director Charles S. Dutton keeps the film moving and does not clutter up the film with unnecessary subplots and red herrings. The action in the ring is amazing and easily the most realistic portrayal of fighting out on celluloid in the last twenty years.
Fine supporting performances by Shalhoub and Timothy Daly round out the strong ensemble cast and makes the film one of the most enjoyable surprises in recent memory.
Gareth Von Kallenbach 2/22/2004