An odd thing happens while you’re watching Against the Ropes: It’s entertaining enough for you to think, hey, this isn’t as bad as everyone says it is.
The film is a competent effort for a first-time feature director (actor Charles S. Dutton), including some suitably grimy location shots from my beloved hometown of Cleveland, Ohio; some snappy one-liners; and, most obviously, Meg Ryan, returning to her old, cute self after some admirably risky but unsuccessful attempts to break away from her standard fare. Then, like a boxer making feints before the real sock-‘em-dead punch, disconcerting details emerge.
Screen credits reveal the movie is “inspired by” (not “based on”) the career of boxing’s first (and still greatest) female manager, Jackie Kallen, who also served as the movie’s associate producer (which can often mean the person gets paid to stay out of the way). In the movie story, Ryan plays an unmarried secretary of a sleazy boxing promoter. On a dare, she risks everything to become the manager of a young tough, Luther Shaw (Omar Epps, In Too Deep), whom she thinks can be a champion.
Jackie is the beloved niece of Ray-Ray Kallen, a talented boxer who died young, and she’s never forgotten his advice to her: “Break their hearts and kick butt.” Thus, she dresses like a campy hooker, hustles like P.T. Barnum and spouts PR sound bites so often that she comes to believe her own hype. Jackie hocks her jewelry and hires a washed-up trainer (Dutton, Gothika), and then with the usual testosterone-laced repartee, everybody gets down to work and shapes Luther into a champion. Meanwhile, Larocca, the slimy but powerful boxing promoter (Tony Shaloub, TV’s Monk), does his best to ruin Jackie and the hopes of her protegee.
As close as Luther and Jackie grow in the long months of his transformation, there’s no hanky-panky between them. In fact, this cleavage-baring gal doesn’t even kiss the loyal, local TV sports reporter (Timothy Daly, Basic). Not having gratuitous romance in the movie is a positive angle, in a way, showing that attractive men and women can work together without rolling in the sheets. But the true story isn’t as neatly PC as depicted here.
In real life, Jackie is indeed as effervescent as Meg Ryan, though she’s from Detroit, not Cleveland. When Jackie moved into managing boxers, she was married and the mother of two kids, and already an experienced journalist and sports publicity director — in other words, even if she did wear trashy leather outfits, she was someone who had average-woman responsibilities.
In Ropes, Jackie is so obsessed with boxing that she has no personal life whatsoever. In the end, without the appeal of Ryan’s cuteness and costumes to sway you, you realize the character she plays is something formed out of the arrangement of index cards printed with “character arc points” from the bulletin board of scriptwriter Cheryl Edwards (Save the Last Dance), where kids and hubby got deleted due to budget considerations. If the movie’s story had truly been “based on” Jackie Kallen’s real life, it could have been a winner.
Nevertheless, Ropes is the best movie I’ve ever seen in portraying the little-known team aspect of boxing — the importance of the manager, trainer, sparing partners and other people supporting the solitary gladiator who actually fights in the ring. For that reason alone, catch Ropes when it comes out on video.
– reviewed by Marci Miller