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Against the Ropes Print E-mail
Friday, 20 February 2004
Image“Against the Ropes” is a story about something you don’t see every day in real life or movies: a woman boxing promoter. For another, it’s one of those rare films with fight footage convincing enough to please aficionados of the sport and sufficient narrative thrust to get even viewers who normally change the channel to care about the outcome of the climactic match in the ring.

“Ropes” reportedly plays fast and loose with reality (this reviewer is not a follower of boxing, and is thus at a disadvantage when it comes to separating fact from fiction here). This much is true – Jackie Kallen manages boxers. A prologue sequence introduces us to Jackie as a little girl, ignored by her father even though she is fascinated by the fighters he trains at his gym. Cut to the present. Jackie (Meg Ryan) is the unappreciated assistant of a major Midwestern stadium manager (Joe Cortese). When Jackie gets into a squabble with big-time fight promoter Abe LaRocca (Tony Shalhoub), the unexpected upshot is that she is exposed to a display of very raw talent from Luther Shaw (Omar Epps). Squaring off against Luther’s considerable and understandable skepticism – Jackie is female and white and Luther is not by any stretch a pro boxer – Jackie persuades him to work with veteran trainer Felix Reynolds (Charles S. Dutton, who is also “Ropes’” director). It turns out to be as hard for an unknown fighter to break into the pro circuit as it is for a nameless actor to break into Hollywood – a difficulty compounded by the reluctance of the boxing establishment to deal with a female manager and by LaRocca’s persistent enmity. Still, Jackie is as good a fighter outside the ring as Luther is within it, making them a winning team – until their respective egos swell and start to clash.

Cheryl Edwards’ script starts out a little awkward, with some on the nose dialogue, but it swerves into something observant and complex. Jackie is no saint – she is at times appalling to Luther, and the film recognizes just how over the line its heroine has stepped. The writing and Dutton’s astute direction also perform the less-common-than-it-should-be feat of making us believe that the fight the movie is building to really is a grudge match, built on realistic incremental slights and slams rather than melodramatic motive. Dutton also pulls a real sense of grit and sweat out of the gym and the locker room – we believe Epps’ Luther is going through a metamorphosis as he trains. The final fight is grueling and, because the movie is about the process rather than turning its main characters into mythic heroes, for once gives us a sense of the purpose of the trainer’s presence in the fighter’s corner, rather than (as nearly all other boxing films do) depicting the fighter as a lone figure who doesn’t really need all that advice.

Ryan gives an emotionally fluid and limber performance as Jackie, showing us the character calibrating just how far to turn on the feminine charm (she wants to appear attractive without getting actual requests for dates) and being occasionally totally thoughtless while still retaining an air of canny toughness. Epps convinces us as someone who can pulverize an opponent – there’s a human being inside who can be wounded, but he’s really not a teddy bear. Dutton has enormous matter-of-fact authority as the trainer (we don’t doubt this guy can control a film set) and Shalhoub is every bit the sharp businessman with an aura of suppressed rage.

Sound on “Against the Ropes” is notably strong – the sound of blows landing is realistic, yet sometimes powerful enough to cause the theatre to throb. The well-chosen soundtrack contains contributions for Jackie Wilson, Ozomatli, Billy McClain & Deanna Della Cioppa, DMX, Hugh Masekela, Sherma Andrews, Hidi Jo Warnick, Oran Waters, J Swift, Lucinda Williams, Miriam Gauci & the BRT Philharmonic, Patricio Castillo, Koko Taylor, Al Jarreau, Kayla Parker and Mana, making for a variety of musical styles, with rap and hip-hop predominant.

“Against the Ropes” is a boxing film that honors both the sport and the story, providing sustenance for fight and movie drama fans alike.

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