Against the Ropes
Meg Ryan is nearly always charming in the roles she plays; “Against the Ropes” is no exception. It’s a loosely-knitted biopic about Jackie Kallen, colloquially known as “The First Lady of Boxing,” and it’s interesting to note that the real-life Kallen, by any other biography, would seem to be the diametric opposite of the ultra-sensitive, relatively insecure character portrayed by Ryan. Kallen grew up a sports writer, created her own PR firm, began managing boxers (to wild success), and now travels the country as a motivational speaker, has written a Broadway musical, is working on a television show, and thanks Jesse at Beverly Hills’ Giuseppe Franco salon for his “fabulous color and cut” along with Roxanne Heptner for her designer looks... all the while suggesting, on her website, that if you want to succeed you should “use good grammar and big words; it intimidates people.”
Does this sound like Meg Ryan to you?
Contrary to the blonde bombshell character just described, Meg Ryan in this film is her own sweet, sexy, sympathetic self. Her take on Kallen is perfectly tuned, even if it would appear that she extracted the most attractive parts of the real-life tigress (Ryan shows her figure more prominently in this film than in any other role to date – and it’s well-toned and dramatically sensual), then injected the sensibilities of Ryan’s other film heros in order to make the conceit of this film at least somewhat modest. And she succeeds – with the phoned-in help of Omar Epps, who plays Luther Shaw, the inexperienced boxer she manages (in a performance which might have seemed decent had he not made “Love & Basketball”), and Charles S. Dutton, who plays the veteran trainer brought out of retirement to make of Shaw a middleweight champion.
The weakness in this film is definitively not its thespian breeding; it’s amazing to watch Ryan, Epps and Dutton pull from the gutter performances at least modestly worth our investment. But the film is probably the least original work ever mashed through the Hollywood blender. Kallen’s character is ripped directly from “Erin Brockovich.” The good girl playing tough in the boys club is nearly its own paradigm in the world of film. The training and fight sequences might as well been excerpts from “Rocky” – or any other mediocre boxing film which has hit the screen. And the plot is about as formulaic and as any I’ve seen, right down to its trite hero-adoring conclusion.
In the end, this is still a story which glorifies sexism as a passive/aggressive plot device, applied to a sport which glorifies physical violence. Boxing may be a respected sport, but it’s still a controversial one; “Against the Ropes” chooses to pay homage to age-old, overexposed themes, rather than engaging our interest in a fresh point of view regarding the sport. This may be the partial result of the twice-delayed opening of the film (first as the result of the war in Iraq, and then to make way for Ryan’s heralded work in Jane Campion’s “In the Cut”). But there’s nothing all that honorable about the self-serving business decisions of Jackie Kallen – she’s a fighter, yes, but her life story lacks altruism and fails to connect with anything not centered around the plight of a modern woman in a man’s world. In this regard, “Ropes” will be compared to every film it originally plundered for plot material – and regrettably, it doesn’t stand a fighting chance.