Against the Ropes

(2004) ** Pg-13
111 min. Paramount Pictures. Director: Charles S. Dutton. Cast: Meg Ryan, Omar Epps, Tony Shalhoub, Tim Daly, Kerry Washington.

If you're ready for Meg Ryan to wrap a gum-cracking accent around lines like "That was off the hook!" and "He's the bomb!" strap in for Against the Ropes, a modern melodrama audacious enough to claim to be true. Meg Ryan plays Jackie Kallen, a present-day single white female and PR flunky who becomes a successful boxing manager in Cleveland (starting with raw but talented first client Omar Epps and trainer Charles S. Dutton).

Never mind that the real Kallen--who went from interviewing celebrities to running a PR firm to managing boxers--made her moves years ago in Detroit, with two kids and a husband. The credits may say "inspired by the life of Jackie Kallen," but when audiences read the historical postscript, will they know the difference between fact and this ridiculous fiction? In the end, Kallen took her associate producer credit and ironic cameo as "Female sportswriter" to the bank, while copping to the Hollywoodization in interviews with trusted reporters: she admits she's completely unlike Ryan's screen version in the details and the broad strokes of personality (while hopefully adding, "I believe that in the future I will have a major outlet to show people the 'real' me").

Dutton, an unfailing actor, makes his big-screen directing debut with Against the Ropes after helming one TV-movie (also with Epps) and the acclaimed cable mini-series The Corner. He should have resisted the big-budget allure contingent on this project being set up with Meg Ryan as a Paramount feature. On cable, Dutton could have told this story truthfully and, perhaps, subtly. He might not have been able to afford as many extras for the boxing bouts, but such a quibble could hardly make the film more unrealistic than it is on the big screen. Instead, Dutton takes halfhearted pot shots at HBO (a represenative of which asks Kallen, "Are you man enough, Jackie?").

Okay, enough already: Against the Ropes is fiction, but is it any good? Ryan—in her sexed-up, hoarse voice—is awfully fun to watch (if a bit smug), and good ol' Tony Shalhoub, in his hard-ass mode, plays the bad promoter of a bad boxer (boo! hiss!). When Shalhoub barks, "Send him back to the ghetto!' during the title bout, look out for flying popcorn. Epps is stalwart in his poorly written role, and Dutton is crisp as a side of bacon.

But Against the Ropes strains to belabor or manufacture conflict. The screen Kallen, though a feminist champion, can't resist fame, even at the price of her honor, and she blithely overlooks how she constantly humiliates her client. By wanting desperately to be heard, she alienates everyone on screen and off, but it's all on the way to a dopey feel-good finish. First, she bizarrely walks away from boxing after huge success (again, a head-scratching detour from Kallen's reality), then worms her way back to the right place at the right time to take in an ovation for her trouble. By this time, we've long since understood the screen Kallen to be an underappreciated surrogate mother to her boxer son. More than just the average "tough guy," this Mother Knows Best.

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