Against the Ropes
Directed by Charles S. Dutton. Starring Meg Ryan, Omar Epps, Charles S. Dutton, Tony Shalhoub, Timothy Daly, Joe Cortese, Kerry Washington. (2004, PG-13, 111 min.)
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., Feb. 20, 2004
Like a lot of sports movies, this biopic about boxing promoter Jackie Kallen is better than it has to be but not as good as it ought to be. The feisty, flamboyant Kallen makes interesting material, but Dutton (in his feature film directing debut) relies too heavily on the well-worn underdog formula. Kallen’s ringside adversaries are mustache-twirlingly evil, and the syrupy Michael Kamen score trumpets her every triumph. (She parks and runs across the street! Excelsior!) The script (by Save the Last Dance scribe Cheryl Edwards) is meatier than the finished product suggests, hinting at issues outside the film’s text: the poaching of inner-city men by sports promoters, the opportunistic nature of entertainment journalism, etc. But the movie doesn’t really take us there, and more’s the pity. With a honking Midwestern accent and a wardrobe of snakeskin-print PVC miniskirts, Ryan is predictably fine as Kallen. She’s spunky when the movie needs her to be, she’s sensitive by turns, and she’s not quite her usual goody-two-shoes self. (Her eyeliner is thick, and she uses her sexuality to get ahead, which rings true to the at-times unsavory world of sports promotion.) It’s a plum role, and Ryan knows it. But the producers are so intent on celebrating Kallen (she was the first female promoter in the sport) that the film skimps on the basics. As her protégé, "Lethal" Luther Shaw, Epps is crocodile-wrestling with the limitations of his role: He’s a sort of thinly drawn Urban Black Guy whose backstory is relayed over salads in one short segment. Director Dutton and screenwriter Edwards, who are both African-American, pull off a great scene later in the film that resonates more deeply, when Jackie's and Luther’s ambitions conflict and she makes a thoughtless remark that hurts him badly. It’s a wonderful moment – economical and pitch-perfect – and it suggests that there’s more going on here than a simple Hollywood success story. But then the movie just keeps chugging along en route to the Last Big Fight, and the emotional buildup steamrolls the subtlety. I like Edwards’ ability to weave relatively sophisticated ideas about race and gender and relationships into standard genre material, but it is standard genre material after all.