Review: Against the Ropes

Posted by: Mark McLeod  //  February 20, 2004 @ 11:59am

Filed under: Movie Reviews 

Ever since she was a young girl, Jackie Kallen (Meg Ryan) has been interested in boxing. In her early years she was hanging around the ring as her uncle Ray-Ray trained for a number of highly-regarded matches. Now in her mid-thirties, Jackie works as a personal assistant to the a promoter who arranges fights at the Cleveland Coliseum. Clearly the brains of the operation, Jackie gets little credit for her hard work and is continuously blamed when things go wrong. When she's not working, she's hanging around a local night spot known for its sports-oriented clientele, including her friend Gavin (Tim Daly), a local sports reporter for Channel 22. One night after a fight she gets into a spirited confrontation with local boxing kingpin Sam LaRocca (Tony Shalhoub) and wins the contract to one of his fighters for only a dollar. Now faced with entering the world of management, she quickly spins off her first client when she realizes that he will never have what it takes to take the title. As luck would have it, she finds Luther Shaw (Omar Epps) and after some convincing he agrees to allow her to represent him. Jackie turns to her father's friend and cut-man Felix Reynolds (Charles S. Dutton) to train the boxer and before you know it there's a buzz surrounding Kallen and her client. This continues to build as Shaw wins matches, but it soon becomes clear that Kallen is promoting herself more than him. This leads to a clash of opinion before Luther's big match. Will Shaw and Kallen go all the way to the big match together or are they simply Against the Ropes?

Against the Ropes is inspired by the life of Jackie Kallen, which in Hollywood terms means a heavily dramatized version of an otherwise true story. Some aspects of the story are real, but for the most part the events have been changed to provide what is hopefully a more entertaining and engaging film. This isn't really a problem, however, because after researching the real Jackie Kallen, the changes made to the story greatly improve the narrative and background of the film. For instance, the real Kallen has been involved with boxing all along and struck out on her own in the 1980s, whereas the fictional one only had limited contact with the boxers. It makes for a much more dramatic and interesting story. Accepting the fact that this isn't a biographical film makes it much easier to accept its flaws and enjoy Against the Ropes for what it is, and that's quite simply a form of entertainment.

Paramount Pictures has had Against the Ropes in the can for quite some time. The film was originally scheduled to be released back in April of 2003, but due to the war in Iraq, the ability to market the film effectively was lost. Now they hope to capture audiences in the often slow month of February. A delayed release usually triggers warning alarms in my head, but this time around, there was no real cause for such alarm. I went into the movie with almost no expectations and came out of the movie having enjoyed myself immensely, and made the rare Thursday night trip to the theatre worthwhile.

Directed by first-time director and long time character actor Charles S. Dutton, Against the Ropes is the second sports movie to come out in 2004 and betters its predecessor (the hockey film Miracle) in almost every area. Although it suffers from the same predictable clichés that plague most sports-oriented films, it doesn't falter in the one key area and that's believable and likeable characters. In Disney's recent release Miracle, there were no real characters to get behind. Here we have two very likeable characters in Jackie Kallen and Luther Shaw ,as well as a number of interesting and engaging side characters, including a sports reporter and a legendary trainer. Written by Cheryl Edwards (Save the Last Dance), the film does take a few missteps when it tries to focus on the relationship between the two unlikely friends, but since the majority of the film is set around the exciting and raw world of boxing, this is easily forgiven. Edwards manages to prevent the screenplay from becoming overly clichéd, though many of the prerequisite sports movie scenarios do play out on the screen. Dutton's direction is adequate, though given the simplistic nature of the film's storyline, there really isn't many places he could have gone wrong. He mixes action and exploratory scenes with relative ease, but the film lives and dies in the ring, which is why most of the action occurs there.

For the majority of Meg Ryan's career she's been known as the bubbly blonde love interest to actors like Tom Hanks and Billy Crystal. With a few exceptions, she's played it fairly safe, appearing in romantic comedies. However in the past few years she's tried to shed that image with roles in Proof of Life, Hurlyburly, and most recently In the Cut, which got lots of press due to the fact that she appeared in the nude. Now for Against the Ropes, she's taken yet another risk and while she's gained back clothes, her outfits are fairly revealing. Sometimes less is more, and that's the case with Ryan here. Ryan gives a performance that's feisty enough to be believable in the role but not so over-the-top that it becomes comical. While Ryan will never be a strong dramatic actor, she does better than expected in this role. In the other lead we have Omar Epps, who's provided some big time muscle in Love and Basketball and Big Trouble. Here, Epps is Luther Shaw, a street tough fighter who's recruited to enter the world of competitive boxing. Epps handles himself well in the boxing scenes and makes for a believable boxer. Supporting turns from Tony Shalhoub as the very un-Monk-like boxing promoter Sam LaRocca and Tim Daly as the sportswriter are strong, as is director Charles S. Dutton in his scenes as a legendary cut-man brought back for one last shot at the big time.

Paramount Pictures' Against the Ropes comes out swinging with strong performances from Meg Ryan and Omar Epps, as well as the supporting cast, in a screenplay that tells an important (albeit slightly fictionalized) story. Sure there are clichés " but that's to be expected " and the film won't win any awards. But in terms of sports movies, it's fun, and one that took me by surprise. Running a little long at 105 minutes, the film could have used some light trimming. Still, the positives outweigh the negatives, making Against the Ropes worth seeing. So grab a popcorn and a ringside seat and enjoy!

Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.

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