There is no true story so interesting that movie can't reduce to a predictable set of familiar clichés, and Against the Ropes, a competent but by–the–numbers flick about female empowerment in the male–dominated world of sports, is the latest case in point.

The film, which marks the feature directorial debut of respected character actor Charles S. Dutton, is supposedly based on the life of Jackie Kallen, one of the first major female boxing managers, but the script seems to have been inspired by every movie ever made on the perils of following your dreams and finding success.

Meg Ryan, who has long tried to escape her romantic girl–next–door image, plays Jackie as a smart, tough, husky–voiced publicist who loves boxing and is constantly frustrated by the fact that the men she works for do not recognize her talents, let alone their reliance on the same. One night at the local sports bar, Jackie gets into a public argument with boxing kingpin Sam LaRocca (Tony Shalhoub), who dares her to prove that a woman like her can manage a boxer all by herself. To prove his point, Sam offers to sell Jackie the contract to one of his less impressive fighters for a dollar—and to his surprise, she accepts the challenge.

It turns out the fighter in question really is the write–off that Sam made him out to be; when Jackie visits his place, she discovers he's a crack addict. But then Luther Shaw (Omar Epps), an enforcer for a local drug dealer, shows up and beats the living tar out of him. Seeing this display of raw brute force, Jackie decides to make Luther a champion instead, and nags him into accepting her offer to be his manager. And to help transform Luther from neighborhood thug to prize–winning pugilist, Jackie persuades veteran trainer Felix Reynolds (Dutton) to come out of retirement and get him ready for the ring.

Jackie and Luther are polar opposites in several ways—she's white, female, and middle–class, while he's black, male, and from a rougher part of town—but one thing they share is a lonely lack of family; and so, rather than become lovers, as we might expect from a film of this sort, Jackie becomes almost a mother–figure to Luther. (In real life, Kallen, a self–described "suburban mom," had children of her own before she began managing boxers, and it could have been interesting to explore how she balanced her family and her work.) But their relationship becomes strained as Luther notices that it is Jackie, and not himself, who is becoming a celebrity and a media darling thanks to his success in the ring.

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It is at this point that the script, by Cheryl Edwards (Save the Last Dance), really begins to show its formulaic trappings. Like Calendar Girls, another recent film inspired by a true story, Against the Ropes is about people who rise from obscurity to fame and fortune but begin to drift apart even as they ride a wave of media hype—and along the way, one of them has to face the fact that she may have lost the purity of her original vision.

These are valid themes and worth exploring, but their treatment here is two–dimensional at best. For example, when an HBO sports reporter calls Jackie to arrange an exclusive interview and tells her to break a promise she made to a local sportscaster who gave her a boost earlier in her career, it's a wonder the smarmy, smiling tempter, who dangles phrases like "I'm holding the keys to the kingdom" before Jackie's ears, doesn't sprout devil horns and a tail. And when the local journalist confronts Jackie over her betrayal, the film's moral lesson—Don't Forget Your Friends—could hardly be more obvious. Plot developments like these are also typical of the film's third act, as characters make dramatic decisions affecting other people's lives, but without even trying to talk to those other people first.

Still, the film does offer several moments to savor, like one nicely understated scene in which Jackie, Luther and Felix drive to one of their bouts and expose the cultural and generational differences between them all by taking turns asserting their musical preferences on the car radio. For his part, Dutton brings the same care, sensitivity and determination to the director's chair that he brings to his performances, and he gives each of his stars plenty of room to show their stuff. Alas, Epps never gets a chance to really flesh out his character's background, but he does make a pretty convincing fighter. And Ryan captures the paradox inherent in a character who is trying to prove she's just one of the guys when, in fact, her very feminine qualities help her to stand out from the pack.

Against the Ropes may not deliver a knock–out, but it does land some pretty good blows, and that may be enough to connect with some audiences.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Is it possible to be a boxer and still maintain a Christ–like attitude? How does one turn the other cheek if one is a professional fighter?
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  1. What's the difference, as Jackie says, between knowing someone "biblically"—that is, sexually—and knowing someone "intimately"?
  2. What do you think about people "owning" other people through contracts and the like? Could you give control of your life to someone else while exercising your own stewardship over it? How? Aren't we required to do something like that in our relationship with God? (See 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 and 7:17-23.)

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Several male characters make rude gestures or remarks at Jackie's expense, to underscore her disadvantage as a woman working in the boxing world. In one scene, Jackie meets a man in a strip club and hints that she might tell his wife if he doesn't help her out. Most of the fights take place in the boxing ring, and some of them are bloody. There's a scene where an enforcer for a drug dealer beats up a crack addict. And there's some tough language.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 02/26/04

Sometimes, a film's story is overshadowed by the transparent agenda of those who worked on it. Several critics are finding that they cannot discuss the film Against the Ropes without pointing out Meg Ryan's attempts to transform her career and her image, following a track that resembles Julia Roberts' career. In Against the Ropes, this veteran of romantic comedies takes on a challenging dramatic role where she must play an assertive professional in a male–dominated industry (boxing) who dresses flamboyantly and works overtime to make a difference in her field … a lot like Erin Brockovich.

Unfortunately, Ryan's latest choices have so far been poorly received. She starred in the heavily criticized psychological thriller In the Cut a few months ago, and Against the Ropes is not faring much better in the reviews.

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) calls Meg Ryan's performance "a barely–concealed imitation of Erin Brockovich. It's hard to believe Against the Ropes is based on a true story, as the story so perfectly matches a typical Hollywood flick. I guess life does imitate art. As with most bad movies, we have a standing ovation at the end, and you shouldn't have to guess who it's for."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "[Ryan's] characterization is roughly drawn and the script does not allow the actress to build smooth transitions. There's no real sense of excitement or tension to the fights themselves and the final bout relies more on boxing film clichés than the anything else."

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Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "Despite being formulaic, and though one must suspend disbelief at Kewpie–doll Meg Ryan as a boxing manager, and for sure the script reduces the characters to caricatures, still, with all these shortcomings, I enjoyed most of Against the Ropes."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) posts an interview with director Charles Dutton, and tells us that he hopes the film will encourage viewers to think "about freedom and sacrifice—and how we choose to use it in our own lives."

Sheri McMurray (Christian Spotlight) says, "It's all formula, corny most of the time, but manages to keep our attention even though we all know that the 'Rocky–esque' fight scene is coming at the big finish." She notes that the film emphasizes the importance of "trust, commitment, hard/honest work, and being humble enough to admit our wrongdoings." But she concludes, "My warning would be NOT to see this film because of the profanity and promotion of violence."

Ryan is not scoring many hits with mainstream critics.

Against the Ropes
Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for mild thematic elements and brief language)
Directed By
Charles S. Dutton
Run Time
1 hour 51 minutes
Meg Ryan, Omar Epps, Charles S. Dutton
Theatre Release
February 20, 2004 by Paramount Pictures
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