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"AGAINST THE ROPES"
(2004) (Meg Ryan, Omar Epps) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A female promoter battles the odds and a sexist environment to turn a street fighter into a champion boxer.
PLOT:
Jackie Kallen (MEG RYAN) is a woman who doesn't get any respect for working in and being a life-long fan of the male-dominated world of professional boxing. While working with friend Rene (KERRY WASHINGTON) in the basement of the Cleveland Coliseum for Irving Abel (JOE CORTESE), Jackie has various run-ins with local boxing promoter Sam LaRocca (TONY SHALHOUB). After his boxer loses in a match, the testy Sam challenges her to do better and sells her the boxer's contract for a dollar.

Jackie takes the challenge, but discovers that the boxer is a drug-addict. During an ensuing, drug-related scuffle, however, she's impressed by the fighting moves of dealer Luther Shaw (OMAR EPPS). Against all common sense, she decides to pursue him as a potential client.

He initially blows her off, but seeing that he's facing a dead-end future, agrees to her proposal. She then brings legendary manager Felix Reynolds (CHARLES S. DUTTON) out of retirement to train the talented but green middleweight fighter, and even entices local sports reporter Gavin Reese (TIM DALY) to cover their story.

As Luther starts winning bouts and his and Jackie's fame increases, however, the two must deal with the effects of that as well as Sam doing everything in his power to stop them from succeeding.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
While most specific sports have been portrayed in movies ad nauseam, for some reason boxing pictures try my patience the most. Perhaps that's due to several great entries in the genre - such as "Rocky" and "Raging Bull" - or the fact that most such films since then are too predictable and obviously limited in what can and does occur.

As a result, filmmakers have wisely started to focus on different sorts of angles and/or non-boxer characters who are usually on the periphery. Such is the case in "Against the Ropes," a drama that's loosely based on the real-life exploits of boxing promoter Jackie Kallen.

Considering that she was a woman operating in a predominately male-controlled profession, her story and especially her success is particularly noteworthy. It's too bad that the cinematic portrayal of both is not.

While the film looks like and obviously should be a contender, it comes out of the corner like a flat-footed, two-bit palooka that's never sure on its feet and misses far too many times with its various combinations. If you've ever seen such a flesh and blood boxer in action, you'll recognize its cinematic counterpart here.

From start to finish, everything simply feels off-kilter. For some reason, actor-director Charles S. Dutton (who makes his feature directorial debut) - who works from a screenplay by Cheryl Edwards ("Save the Last Dance") - has fashioned the film with the look and feel of one of those medium to low-budget efforts from the 1970s.

While that might make some feel he's going for a gritty picture, it and a truly awful score by composer Michael Kamen ("Open Range," "X-Men") only add to the misery. All of which is too bad since there's obviously plenty of potential here in this classic underdog story. And it's not the basic, underlying plot that's the problem.

Its story of a determined if over her head boxing fan who tries to transform a troubled street fighter into a legitimate contender - with the aid of a formerly retired boxing manager - might sound like just a slight modification of the usual genre cliché. Yet, that gender change is just enough to garner one's interest and root for the underdog to succeed.

But it's all of the individual elements that collectively undermine the film's chances of going the distance. Beyond the somewhat forgivable low-budget look and the non-forgivable score, the film is ripe with some truly awful dialogue, melodramatic moments that are so bad they're nearly funny, a storytelling style that spells out everything for the viewer, and an uneven pacing that all but kills the film's momentum.

Right up there with those varied problems is Meg Ryan's ("In the Cut," "Proof of Life") performance as Kallen. While I know nothing about the real woman, Ryan's take on her feels just as off-kilter as the overall film. Sporting some questionable costume choices, wishy-washy motivation and an accent that's so hard to place that it's distracting, Ryan continues her recent trend away from the sort of roles that made her a star and are undeniably better suited for her than this sort of material.

Director Dutton ("Gothika," "Random Hearts") steps away from behind the camera to appear as the veteran boxing promoter, but brings nothing to the role. While saddled with some clichés, Omar Epps ("Brother," "Love & Basketball") does the best of surviving this mess relatively unscathed as does Tim Daly ("Basic," "The Object of My Affection") as a local TV reporter. Tony Shalhoub ("Life or Something Like It," TV's "Monk"), however, is so over the top as the villain that he seems to have arrived from an entirely different film altogether.

I really wanted to like this film, but just couldn't get around the myriad of problems. Like a pugilist who's taken a few too many blows to the head, the film staggers and wobbles its way toward a predictable yet shockingly bad finale. Down for the count long before the credits roll, "Against the Ropes" is true to its title for most of its running time and only rates as a 3.5 out of 10.




Reviewed January 15, 2004 / Posted February 20, 2004


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