Like the sport they spotlight, boxing movies have fallen on bad days. The downward spiral isn’t likely to be reversed by Sylvester Stallone’s threatened revival of “Rocky,” but it surely won’t be by this latest effort to revivify Meg Ryan’s career, a punch-drunk combination of pugilistic hokum and feminist empowerment fantasy. “Against the Ropes” wants to be a crowd-pleasing fable about winning against the odds, but it quickly goes down for the count itself
Ostensibly based on the career of Jackie Kallen, a rare female among successful boxing managers, the picture–written by Cheryl Edwards (“Save the Last Dance”) and directed by actor Charles S. Dutton (in his feature debut at the helm)–is a fairy-tale detailing how Kallen (Ryan) proves her mettle in the man’s world of pummeling-for-pay by taking a young, untrained inner-city amateur named Luther Shaw (Omar Epps) to championship contention. She’s aided in this by Felix Reynolds (Dutton), a crusty old retired trainer, and Gavin Ross (Tim Ross), a supportive local reporter, and in the process shows up Sam LaRocca (Tony Shaloub), the Mafia-associated (and snidely sexist) Midwest promoter who dismisses her ambitions. Of course, there’s also a personal crisis for Kallen as Luther gets closer to a title bout. Can she remain level-headed and devoted to her fighter, as well as keep her promises of an exclusive to a local writer like Ross, in the face of growing national celebrity for herself and offers from the likes of ESPN?
The manipulation of this strenuous piece of would-be uplift is far heavier than in an intentional boxing comedy-fantasy like “Here Comes Mr. Jordan.” The actual Jackie Kallen might be a person of some interest, but this script, which claims merely to be “inspired by” her, turns the woman into little more than a pale copy of Erin Brockovich, triumphing against not mendacious corporate interests but a business that dismisses her, as knowledgeable and capable as she is, simply because of gender bias. (She also turns out to be a totally self-absorbed individual, blithely oblivious to the effect her ambition has on those around her.) Ryan plays the part with a generalized spunkiness that’s certainly preferable to her leap into dark dramatic depths in last year’s dismal thriller “In the Cut,” but not by much. Epps, who cut a pretty convincing figure as a hoops star in “Love and Basketball” (2000), is pretty persuasive in the ring as well, and his natural charisma comes through even when the narrative plods. Daly gets by as the likable reporter, but Shalhoub embarrasses himself trying to act sleazy and smug; he should have stuck to “Monk.” As for Dutton, he shuffles about and croaks out his lines in a similar fashion to that which brought Burgess Meredith so much attention in “Rocky,” but the effect isn’t nearly as endearing, especially when one realizes that he’s also the person responsible for the movie’s lugubrious, de-energized pacing.
“Against the Ropes” is reasonably proficient from a technical perspective. Jack Green’s cinematography is spiffy enough, and makes fairly good use of the Toronto and Cleveland locations to create a Midwestern atmosphere. The score is by the late Michael Kamen, and unfortunately represents a thoroughly undistinguished contribution by a musician who’s done much better work in the past. It would be a pity if this posthumous effort were permitted to tarnish his legacy.
There’s a line of dialogue in “Ropes” that pretty much summarizes Ryan’s failure in the project. Kallen saves Luther from drinking a glass of orange juice laced with a stomach-churning laxative right before a bout, and explains to him that as his manager, “It’s my job to see s–t coming.” In this case, unfortunately, Ryan didn’t exactly prove as prescient as the character she plays. If you want to watch a boxing movie with a feminist slant, check out the independent flick “Girlfight” (2000). Though hardly a masterpiece, that gritty little picture dances like a butterfly around this piece of bloated mediocrity.