Punch Drunk, No Love

Going the distance from Round 1 to Round 2: Meg Ryan in 'Against the Ropes'
Paramount Pictures

Meg Ryan has a nifty moment near the beginning of Against the Ropes, the comedy-turned-drama-turned-melodrama that would have us believe she's the brash manager of a prizefighter played by Omar Epps. Strutting through the Cleveland projects in big hair and high heels, hoping to meet the crack-addicted boxer (Tory Kittles) whose contract she just bought off Sam LaRocca for a buck, Ryan's working-class fight aficionado suddenly plucks a wad of chewed gum from her mouth, wraps it in a paper napkin, and stuffs it in her purse. This guy might be a crack addict and a bum, she's thinking, but I still want to make a good impression.

The opening credits proudly announce that Against the Ropes has been "inspired by the life of Jackie Kallen." (Reality is apparently crucial in Hollywood these days; even Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights is "based on actual events.") But this formulaic biopic of the most successful female manager in boxing history appears particularly moved to chart the parallels between Kallen's upward mobility and the narrative arc of the makeover movie. Here, the working girl is washed so clean by her great success that she doesn't need Doublemint, only Dolce and Gabbana.

That the most convincing round of Against the Ropes would be the first is partly a function of the star's own underdog status in the Hollywood ring. Indeed, since You've Got Mail in '98, Ryan has seen her stock fall almost as precipitously as AOL's. (Small wonder that this valentine to America's Sweetheart is arriving a week late.) When Kallen is still just a contender--smacking her gum, cracking wise, fetching coffee for her pig of a boss at the Cleveland Coliseum--the film at least gives Ryan a fighting chance. "Boxing," proclaims our heroine in a raspy Cleveland drawl, "makes all the other shit bearable." Alas, the movie doesn't allow the actor to fulfill the same redemptive role. Kallen has supposedly loved the sport since she was a kid, but the film never bothers to show us what she sees in it. Probably what she sees is a chance to earn the approval of her boxing-trainer dad, who calls the young Jackie a "midget with a head full of stupid" in the wistful opening scene. But the movie never bothers to make that entirely clear, either.

"Fight fan or feminist," crows a smug sportscaster (Tim Daly) who I'm happy to say never becomes Kallen's boyfriend, "you're gonna love this story." That's certainly the hook of Against the Ropes, which would also like to connect with the African American audience that cheered for Epps in Love and Basketball. Epps swings for a literal sort of broad appeal here, his moody brawler verily loping across the screen. (Even Kallen's offer of a milkshake compels the thug to bob and weave.) But Epps's comic agility isn't remotely matched by director Charles S. Dutton, whose bid to bring the slow-burn style of his acting to the film is, in the absence of heat, only half effective.

God, how this picture plods. I never thought a boxing movie would make me long for the relatively fancy footwork of Streisand and O'Neal in The Main Event, but Against the Ropes is that movie. By the time Epps's "Lethal" Luther Shaw gets his title shot in a contest that Kallen can only witness from behind the fence around the arena's upper deck (don't ask), even the most punch-drunk fight-film fan would want to throw in the towel. So, too, even the biggest Meg Ryan supporter--the one who found pathos in her impersonation of Nicole Kidman for Jane Campion's In the Cut, let's say--would be reluctant to treat this turkey with kid gloves. "God forbid I should use anything from the neck up," says Kallen at one point--a bit of tough-gal sarcasm that the movie appears to have taken as more inspiration.

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