In 1931, The Champ became the first boxing movie to score big at the box-office, winning Wallace Beery an Academy Award® for his poignant performance as Andy Purcell, the down-and-out heavyweight champ who makes an unexpected comeback, thanks to his supportive, young son, Dink (a 9-year-old Jackie Cooper). Since then, Hollywood has made a number of great boxing movies, like Palooka, Kid Galahad, Champion, Rocky, and Raging Bull, and a number of not so great boxing movies, like Winner Take All, The Prizefighter and the Lady, The Main Event, Streets of Gold, and The Greatest. But none of them have been as outrageous, nor as over the top as Against the Ropes, the latest boxing drama starring Meg Ryan and Omar Epps.
Based on the so-called story of Jackie Kallen, Against the Ropes chronicles Kallen’s successful yet tumultuous career as the first lady of boxing. Set in Cleveland, OH, it opens with 10-year-old Jackie (Skye McCole Bartusiak) hanging out at her father’s gym, as Uncle Ray Ray (Sean Bell) trains for an upcoming match. Watching from behind the ring with an old, worn out jump rope in tow, Jackie can hardly contain her enthusiasm as Uncle Ray Ray bobs and weaves amid a razor-sharp series of hooks and jabs. Her father, a world-renowned boxing coach, sends her to a vacant corner of the room with a stern warning: be quiet or be expelled from the gym. Jackie, of course, obeys, later receiving a pep talk from Uncle Ray Ray, who tells her to always believe in herself no matter the odds.
Fast forward to the present day, when Jackie (Meg Ryan) is stuck working a dead-end job as an Executive Assistant for a sleazy boxing promoter named Irving Abel (Joseph Cortese). One night during a volatile run-in with Larocca (Tony Shahloub), Cleveland’s reigning boxing manager, Jackie accepts a dare in which she buys a boxer for a buck. The next day when she visits the former champ to discuss his contract, she discovers that he’s strung out on crack. In the midst of their meeting, in crashes Luther Shaw (Omar Epps), a street thug looking to collect on a drug deal. As Jackie watches Luther sucker punch Green (Tory Kittles), beating him to a bloody pulp. She knows she’s found herself a winner, and convinces him to take up boxing, recruiting Felix Reynolds (Charles S. Dutton), a lifelong friend of Uncle Ray Ray’s, to become his trainer.
But, there’s a problem. As soon as Luther becomes a top contender for middleweight champion, defeating nearly every boxer in his class, his relationship with Jackie suffers a debilitating blow. Obsessed with fame, fortune, and female empowerment, Jackie begins to overshadow Luther’s achievements, stealing the spotlight away from him, and turning his success in the ring into a whirlwind of publicity for herself. Before Luther knows it, Jackie’s received a book deal, an HBO special, and even an offer to pose nude in Playboy, while he’s received little more than a black eye.
As self-indulgent and vain as Kallen is portrayed here, the real woman behind Against the Ropes is anything but arrogant. A former celebrity journalist turned sports writer turned public relations owner turned boxing manager, Jackie Kallen has worked very hard to get where she is today, going as far as to interview a crop of the nation’s most in demand athletes, including Detroit pitcher, Mark "The Bird" Fidrych and boxing middleweight world champion, Thomas "The Hit Man" Hearns, before snagging a job as a sports publicist and then a boxing manager in 1988. But in Against the Ropes, the audience never gets to see that. Instead of focusing on Kallen’s 13-year battle to become the most successful female boxing manager in the world, screenwriter Cheryl Edwards has turned her story into a boxing fairytale, in which Jackie finds instant success, winning over her male detractors with nothing more than a sexy voice and a skintight miniskirt.
Unfortunately, much of the film’s hackneyed storyline is devoted to Jackie’s meteoric claim to fame, rather than the rise and fall of boxing’s most unlikely duo. In real-life, Kallen and four-time middleweight world champion, James Toney, parted ways back in 1994, when Toney blamed Kallen for costing him the title of IBF Super Middleweight Champion. Yet in Against the Ropes that’s only a minor part of the plot.
Of course, any critic will tell you that it’s never a good sign when a film is shelved for an entire year before it’s released, and in the case of Against the Ropes that’s certainly true. Diehard boxing fans will likely be disappointed by the film’s lackluster fight scenes, calling them boring and lifeless. Director Charles S. Dutton, who does double duty here as actor and director, never allows the action to develop in Against the Ropes, shooting most of the boxing scenes in close up, rather than long shot to obscure their simplicity. As a result, Omar Epps, who plays Luther “The Lethal” Shaw, comes off looking like a complete amateur instead of a world-class boxing contender. Sadly, Meg Ryan doesn’t fare much better, grating on viewer’s nerves with her throaty accent and cleavage-baring costumes. Although, she and Epps have a decent amount of on-screen chemistry, they never really sell the audience on their characters’ ability to transcend the odds and become boxing’s most beloved team. Ultimately, making Kallen and Toney, the real people involved in this boxing saga, seem more like losers rather than winners.
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