Punchless in Cleveland
Against the Ropes
Against the Ropes is an errant wide left hook in Hollywood’s motley stable of boxing-related films. It lacks the genuine smell of the gym, an antagonist that you love to hate and a protagonist whose emotional and physical ups and downs alternately implode and euphorically burst your heart. It has no peripheral characters that add convincing color, depth and grit to what is supposed to be a big-fish-eats-the-little-fish pond teeming with just as much bottom feeding and corruption as Pay-Per-View agony and victory. And it fills these holes not with the slice-of-life intimacy of a Fat City or Girlfight, the macho myth-shattering of Raging Bull or even the underdog exhilaration of Rocky, but rather with punchless personalities and drama-challenged episodes.
The story is “inspired” by the life of Jackie Kallen, one of the first and most successful female managers in the world of boxing. It opens in 1972 as young Kallen stands ringside, her eyes at canvas level, watching as her manager father coaches her fighter uncle through a sparring match. Pop chastises his daughter for being underfoot and refers to her as a stupid girl: sexist fighting words that rather lamely set the tone of Kallen’s climb into the fighting game itself. Her uncle takes her aside and tells her not to worry: that she is pretty and tough enough to break hearts and kick butt and get to wherever she wants to go in life.
The film then leaps to what the title card refers to as present-day Cleveland. Kallen, played by Meg Ryan, is an executive assistant at a boxing arena. The men in charge treat her with the same outward contempt as her daddy did (she is referred to at one point as a Barbie doll with glass balls) while one local TV newsman fills the void vacated by the once-kind uncle.
Kallen, whose peek-a-boo wardrobe taste generally mirrors that of Erin Brockovich, badly wants out of her dead-end job and this den of sexist jerks. One night, she has a yelling bout with a top promoter (Monk‘s Tony Shalhoub) in the front offices. He chides her for knowing nothing about the fight game and says she should stick to wiping the ass of their mutual boss. She says she knows more than he does and that she covers the ass of their mutual boss, rather than wipes it. And in a series of incidents that don’t need to be addressed here, Kallen winds up managing her first fighter and then becomes her own worst enemy, as well as that of her career.
This is Ryan’s most miscast outing since she played a 1660s English wench in Restoration. She struggles with an East Coast accent that draws increased attention to her cosmetically enhanced Gummi Worm lips. And her character is such a mess that Kallen indignantly spits, “God forbid I use anything from the neck up,” in one scene and then, in another, appears so image-conscious that she fools with and flips her hair even when answering the phone. And her sense of naiveté ("I’m really good with budgets and really good with people,” she chirps about her talent) has a thud of shallowness that works against the grain and evolution of the story.
Omar Epps is fine as an inner-city hard case who parlays “an ol’ fashioned project ass-whupping” of a crack-head pugilist into a shot at the title, but he’s given little character background and even less arc to make a difference in the film’s general flatness. Shalhoub is more of a jerk than a villain, which cripples the David-and-Goliath themes that want to emerge here. And Charles S. Dutton puts much more life in his role as a veteran trainer who is brought out of retirement to turn yet another chump into a champ than he does into his debut as a feature film director. Even the actual fight scenes here lack escalating thrills.
Against the Ropes is about being a woman and being white ("You say it like I’m a disease or something," says Kallen to her trainer) and gaining the trust of black men. It is about self-empowerment and the seductive force of celebrity. In real life, Kallen went on to manage champions in six different weight groups. Somebody, please, throw in a towel before some suit green-lights a sequel.