Against the Ropes
Cynthia Fuchs, 20 February 2004
Boxing promoter Jackie Kallen has
an impressive record. In addition to succeeding in a field that is
heavily dominated by men, she's also managed champions in six
different weight classes.
It's too bad the move "inspired by"
her life doesn't match her overachiever reputation. Whereas Kallen
is an original and has a uniquely interesting story, Against the
Ropes is tepid and routine. It also doesn't help that leading
lady Meg Ryan seems really out of her element in Kallen's milieu.
Vainly struggling with a Midwestern
accent that's never quite convincing, Ryan plays Kallen as a
secretary who knows a lot more of training and promoting boxers than
the baboonish men she works for.
Any credibility this film tries to
establish is lost early on. In real life, Ryan may be a tough
customer, but onscreen she just doesn't project the right sense of
authority, and the actors playing the boxing world heavies are
saddled with cartoonish roles that don't give them much room to
As the film progresses, Kallen
moves up to being a potential player when Larocca (an appropriately
menacing Tony Shalhoub), the tyrannical czar of the sport, sells her
a losing fighter's contract for a measly dollar.
Kallen takes the challenge, but
discovers that the fighter was so lousy because he was on drugs and
hangs out with the dangerous folks who sell it. In fact, the
chemicals have screwed him up so much that a seemingly ordinary thug
named Luther Shaw (Omar Epps) beats the fighter worse than his last
Kallen immediately sees potential
in the criminal and helps him turn from an outcast into a serious
contender with the assistance of a no-nonsense veteran coach (the
film's first-time director Charles S. Dutton). As Luther starts to
pose a credible challenge to Larocca's current champ, Jackie starts
hogging the spotlight and inadvertently starts alienating the fellow
who's made her what she is.
All of this feels more like a
hackneyed showbiz tale than a credible telling of a remarkable
woman's life. If you like boxing or know a little something about
the sport, prepare to have your intelligence insulted.
The final bout features just about
every boxing movie cliché you can imagine. It's almost as if
screenwriter Cheryl Edwards (Save the Last Dance) and
Dutton were following a checklist to make sure they had included all
of them. I may be just a film critic, but even I know a manager on
the outs with a former client isn't going to be allowed into the
ring to give him a much-needed pep talk. Even Rocky avoided
It doesn't help that the only
remotely three-dimensional male characters in the film are Luther
and a sympathetic sports reporter played by Timothy Daly. Without a
sense of dynamics with these antagonists, the film never seems to
develop any real narrative drive. It just sits there listlessly
because the battle of the sexes presented here is monotonous.
I've been reading a bit about
Kallen after seeing the film, and it's really troubling when the
real person is so much more interesting than her fictional
doppelganger. The real Kallen was a former journalist, married and
was raising children while she was working. She also recently
battled a heart attack and come back in an astonishing manner.
If you want to see a movie about
women who have succeeded in the testosterone drenched world of
athletics, I'll be happy to recommend some far move entertaining and
believable films. Heart like a Wheel, Love and Basketball
and Girlfight are all three films that take both the sports
and the women who have transformed them seriously.
The latter is especially intriguing
because that film's writer-director Karyn Kusama has a
well-developed visual style, an authentic eye for detail and a drive
to tell stories that don't follow the sports movie template. All of
these things are missing from Against the Ropes.