Against the Ropes
The fact that Against the Ropes (2004) lists "Inspired by the life of Jackie Kallen" as an actual writing credit should make one thing clear it has virtually nothing to do with her life at all. Kallen, the most successful female boxing manager in history, took up the profession after she already was a successful Detroit-based sportswriter and PR rep. Coming from a mostly male, sports-dominated family, her knowledge of boxing came naturally, and her career quickly took off when her first fighter, Tommy "Hitman" Hearns, proved to be a world champion who slugged it out in title matches with the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler. A tall and voluptuous redhead with flashy clothes and a flamboyant charisma, Kallen became a celebrity in her own right in boxing circles. And so who else should play her on screen than Meg Ryan? The diminutive, flaxen-blonde queen of rom-coms proves in Against the Ropes that she can lay out a convincing, streetwise Midwest accent (in addition to sounding like she's been on a steady diet of Marlboro Reds since grade school), but that's where authenticity ends. In this re-imagining of Jackie Kallen's life, the best woman in the fight game starts out not in Detroit, but present-day Cleveland, where she works as an executive assistant at the Cleveland Coliseum. Known for shooting her mouth off a little too often, she makes the mistake of doing so to temperamental boxing manager Sammy LaRocca (Tony Shalhoub), who offers the pretty young blonde the contract to one of his worst fighters for one dollar. Put on the spot, Jackie accepts, but before long she learns her new prospect has a crack habit. However, she also stumbles upon another lead, Luther Shaw (Omar Epps), a young man who lives in the housing projects and shows all of the natural gifts of a pro slugger. It's only a matter of time before Jackie recruits trainer Felix Reynolds (Charles S. Dutton) and gets Luther a sparring partner. But before Luther can start fighting in Cleveland and work his way towards a title shot, he has to make his name elsewhere Sammy LaRocca has declared the Midwest off-limits to any fighter managed by Jackie Kallen.
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It would be easy to dismiss Against the Ropes as a bad movie, but, in truth, it isn't horrible or terribly misguided or laughably bad. In some ways, it's worse: It's aggressively mediocre, the sort of project that gets greenlit by a studio after a two-page script synopsis and a marquee name on the contract. As such, it jabs the solar plexus with sports-movie clichés, one after the other virtually every man that Kallen deals with in the fight game is a pigheaded lout; Luther is a black kid from a broken home who has to learn to control his temper; Felix is the aging, no-nonsense trainer with the porkpie hat who alternately lectures and shouts at his young charge; there's the training montage as Luther learns his moves; there's the rising-action montage as Luther starts winning fights (complete with newspaper headlines); there's the point when it looks like Everything Will Go Horribly Wrong; and there's the final boxing match against the champ, which offers about as much suspense as an instruction manual for a new Cuisinart. There are a few things to enjoy along the entirely predictable ride fortunately, Kallen's character is not a Joan of Arc in the boxing world crusading against sexism, nor is she without her many flaws (the real Jackie Kallen presumably would not mind, since the character is only borrowing her name). Tony Shalhoub can do no wrong, and even his one-note performance here has its moments. And Charles S. Dutton shows he's a debut director with a journeyman's competence. But as an up-by-the-bootstraps sporting chestnut, the only thing that lights up the screen is Meg Ryan's many figure-hugging outfits, which prove that she can turn 40 and look deliciously slutty at the same time. Paramount's DVD release of Against the Ropes features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Supplements include the behind-the-scenes featurette "A Ringside Seat" (19 min.), the featurette "Queen of the Ring: Jackie Kallen Then and Now" (8 min.), the theatrical trailer, and previews for other Paramount titles. Keep-case.