Ever since she was a little girl, Jackie Kallen (Meg Ryan) has loved the world of boxing. Told time and again that she doesn’t belong, Jackie has kept herself on the fringes of the sport, working for men who don’t know half as much about the business as she does. When a vile boxing manager (Tony Shalhoub) offers the contract of a crackhead boxer to Jackie as a joke, she takes him up on the offer, finding her way to Luther Shaw (Omar Epps) in the process. A rough young urban drug dealer, it will take Kallen’s persistence and an aging trainer (Charles S. Dutton) to whip Shaw into shape and take on the establishment that wants nothing to do with Kallen or her fighter.
“Against the Ropes” (IMDb listing) is based on the life story of Jackie Kallen, one of the first and most successful female boxing managers in the history of the sport. And in true managerial style, Kallen managed to find herself with an executive producer credit on this film, thus restraining just how faithful this drama is to true events. The film claims to be “inspired” by Kallen’s tale, and I assume they mean that in the loosest possible way.
“Ropes” marks the feature film directorial debut of Charles S. Dutton, a hurricane of an actor who is also a lousy decision maker regarding material (the recent “Gothika“). Dutton is as passionate an actor as they make these days and, even in garbage, he has a way of bringing all eyes to him. His enthusiasm shows clearly in “Ropes,” assembling a film that plays to both the upper and lower decks of the stadium seating. The script is written in a very crayola way, with characters outside of Kallen either saintly good or Beelzebubish evil and nothing in between. Dutton works around that as best he can, and his ability to find nooks and crannies of genuine character in Kallen is a precious achievement that keeps the film from falling apart.
Dutton is assisted in building an interesting Kallen by Meg Ryan, who, after slogging through the rust colored mire of Jane Campion’s wild misfire, “In the Cut,” finds herself back on comfortable ground enjoying the luxury of using her charm again. Though Ryan is encumbered with a New England accent and a series of revealing outfits which threatens to “Erin Brockovich” the character to death, she’s able to make the disagreeable behavior of Kallen at least understandable. Kallen is an intelligent lady burdened by being a woman in a man’s world, and through Ryan’s portrayal, the audience is allowed to sense very palpable career and personal frustrations, even when the script heaps on the lothario caricatures and cigar-chomping mob types. This is a good performance from Ryan.
Though the film isn’t structured to support the big boxing match that must climax the piece, Dutton goes for the throat by staging one. What began as a portrait of a young woman’s rise to success eventually dissolves into an umpteenth “Rocky” knockoff, and loses integrity points in the process. Kallen is the main focus here, sanitized or not, and when her story is sidelined for a clichéd sports flick ending, “Against the Ropes” goes down for the count.
Filmfodder Grade: C+