Combustible Celluloid
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With: Meg Ryan, Omar Epps, Charles S. Dutton, Tony Shalhoub, Timothy Daly, Joseph Cortese, Kerry Washington, Sean Bell, Dean McDermott, Skye McCole Bartusiak
Written by: Cheryl Edwards
Directed by: Charles S. Dutton
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for crude language, violence, brief sensuality and some drug material
Running Time: 111
Date: 02/20/2004

Against the Ropes (2004)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Thinking Inside the 'Box'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Meg Ryan is at the top of her game. She recently gave her finest performance in Jane Campion's completely misunderstood In the Cut, and here she is again in Against the Ropes, playing a character from real life and possibly taking a stab at some Erin Brockovich glory.

The trouble is that Erin Brockovich had Steven Soderbergh at the helm while Against the Ropes has Charles S. Dutton, making his big screen directorial debut. Dutton (Cookie's Fortune) is one of my favorite actors, but as a director he reveals an unwelcome penchant for soapy hysterics; he's not helped by Cheryl Edwards' (Save the Last Dance) clunky screenplay.

Ryan plays Jackie Kallen, boxing's first female manager, though her real-life story is not as dramatically rags-to-riches as the movie presents it. (The movie omits that the real Kallen was a journalist and a mother.) It opens with a flashback of Jackie's father throwing the child out of the gym because it's "no place for a girl."

Getting stuck with a junkie as her first fighter, the grown Jackie instead discovers an untrained talent (Omar Epps) from the projects and convinces him to enter the ring. She also enlists a retired -- and reluctant -- trainer (Dutton) to help. Tony Shalhoub plays an already established manager who tries to shut Jackie out, presumably because she's "just a girl."

Against the Ropes joins in the great tradition of Hollywood boxing films, from Body and Soul to Raging Bull, but unfortunately, Dutton's fight sequences are unquestionably the worst I've ever seen in a boxing picture. The camera jumps all over the place and looks everywhere except at the action. One shot literally views the ring from the cheap, nosebleed seats about a half a mile away.

Moreover, he finishes with one of those one-man-clapping sequences (Amistad, Mystery, Alaska, etc.) that should have been outlawed long ago.

But Ryan comes to the picture like a pro, forgoing her cute little romantic comedy eye shifts and instead looking everyone directly in the eye. The movie outfits her with a sexy/cheap look similar to Julia Roberts' Brockovich uniform, and she wears it like armor. She's a sad, stuck woman who realized long ago that her looks were a weapon and has resigned herself to that fact.

However it's a strong performance at the center of a seriously flawed film. When Jackie betrays her friend at the local news station for a CNN exclusive, the movie doesn't give us time to understand Jackie's pain. It just looks like a casual betrayal. Ryan does her best to fill in the blanks, but the movie just won't meet her halfway.

If someone were to take a poll, I would guess that a large percentage of American women would wish for Ryan to play them in the movie of their lives. I'm happy for the real life Kallen. But if she wished for Ryan, she should have clarified her wish and asked for a good movie to go along with her.

DVD Details: With its TV-movie-of-the-week feel, Against the Ropes will probably fare better on the small screen. Paramount's DVD comes with two featurettes, a 20-minute "making of" and a 9-minute short on the life of the real Jackie Kallen. It also includes a trailer for the film, plus a handful of other Paramount trailers. The picture is mastered in 2.35-to-1 widescreen and is available in English 5.1 Surround, English Dolby Surround and French Dolby Surround, with optional English subtitles.

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