Famous female boxing manager Jackie Kallen's real life is quite a good story about perseverance and tenacity in the toughest and nastiest of men's worlds.
Kallen was once a journalist who early in her career talked the Rolling Stones into coming to her mom's house for dinner and an interview, and whose dogged single-mindedness landed her a 1976 exclusive with notoriously press-shy Detroit pitcher Mark "the Bird" Fidrych. But writing a story on boxer Thomas "Hit Man" Hearns led her to change careers, becoming a publicist and then a manager for several up-and-coming fighters in the 1980s -- a choice that was met with a lot of resistance in the sport. In fact, she got a cornerman's license because she wasn't being allowed in the ring with her clients. And she did all this while raising two daughters.
But the real Jackie Kallen has very little to do with "Against the Ropes," a grossly over-fictionalized biopic starring Meg Ryan as a frisky, charmingly trashy, tough-cookie version of Kallen who has a soundtrack of perky flutes and violins lending girl-power twinkle to everything she does -- and sucking all the sports credibility out of the movie.
This version of Kallen is a secretary for a Cleveland sports arena manager who decides to take a boxer under her wing after he's been dumped by Ohio's biggest, most crooked boxing promoter (Tony Shalhoub) -- a choice she makes mostly to spite the kingpin and her chauvinist boss, both of whom see her as the skirt who brings coffee. They must not know that she practically grew up in a family-owned gym where she learned the ropes from her friendly pug uncle despite the disapproval of her mean ol' sexist daddy.
In one of the film's biggest contrivances, she drives to the ghetto ("twinkle-twinkle!" insists the happy-go-lucky score), discovers her crack-addict fighter being beaten up by his dealer (Omar Epps), and jettisons the chump in favor of the thug.
Training montages ensue with all the requisite hardships and dime-philosophy dialogue. "The world is not an oyster," says Ryan with a straight face. "It's a smelly tank full of dirty sharks, and it's not that easy to swim.") Then after Kallen faces down and outwits those darn sexists with all the power in the sport ("She doesn't get a fight in this town!" barks Shalhoub), director Charles S. Dutton delves into some of the cleanest, tamest, least convincing boxing scenes in movie history -- with himself in the ring as Epps' back-from-retirement mentor/trainer.
The film makes very little mention of its characters' lives outside the ring (apparently Epps just walked away from the drug trade without consequences) except for on-cue conflicts that arise when Kallen's growing celebrity (talk shows, magazine covers, etc.) screws up her priorities. Setting herself up for a slap-on-the-wrist Movie Life Lesson, she hogs the spotlight and abandons an exclusive-coverage promise to a local sportscaster pal (Tim Daly) and climbs into bed with HBO instead. But that betrayal is patched up with little more than a last-reel, all-is-forgiven Movie Apology, which addresses neither Kallen's lack of integrity nor her overconfidence.
While it's hard to blame the talented Ryan for wanting to branch out from her romantic-comedy pigeonhole, the actress is miscast as Kallen. She comes off as opinionated but harmless, and more tarty (thanks to her Brockovich-by-way-of-Jersey wardrobe) than tough. If "Against the Ropes" were a comedy, it would be called "Pugilistally Blonde."
The rest of the cast is adequate in off-the-shelf roles. Epps lets his character's street-fighting style show subtly through his training as a boxer, and Shalhoub is particularly biting as the egomaniacal big dog of Cleveland boxing, which often comes as a relief in a production that is only a small step above a TV movie. But the more rounds "Against the Ropes" stays on its feet, the more hackneyed it becomes, eventually betraying its complete creative bankruptcy with one of those short-hand feel-good scenes in which one person starts slowly applauding the heroine and gradually a whole room full of people joins in.
Why did screenwriter Cheryl Edwards feel the need to substitute this woman's extraordinary real life with a story of such coy, lukewarm Hollywood banality? It's hard to say. But if I were Kallen, I'd be hopping mad.
Run time: 111 mins
In Theaters: Friday 20th February 2004
Box Office USA: $5.7M
Box Office Worldwide: $6.6M
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Production compaines: Paramount Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 12%
Fresh: 16 Rotten: 116
IMDB: 5.2 / 10
Director: Charles S Dutton
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