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Against the Ropes

A sports ''biopic'' with a feminine twist, Against the Ropes, based on the life of Jackie Kallen, takes liberties with the story of boxing's most successful female manager.


Anyone who knows anything about the real-life Jackie Kallen will probably find

Against the Ropes a significant deviation from her biography. In the film, Kallen (Meg Ryan) is a boxing fanatic whose work as an executive assistant at the Cleveland Coliseum allows her to watch the bouts from her office and do the hang at a bar frequented by boxers, promoters and local sports paparazzi. Her big break into the man's world of pro boxing comes when she has a run-in with promoter Sam LaRocca (Tony Shalhoub) and he sells her a contract with a boxer for a dollar. That boxer turns out to be a crackhead has-been, but while visiting his derelict tenement, she discovers her ticket to the big time in Luther Shaw (Omar Epps), a street thug with the raw talent to become a champion. She enlists the help of veteran trainer Felix Reynolds (Charles S Dutton), and the rest of the story chronicles the team's meteoric rise to fame, Kallen's Faustian over-reaching, her lust for publicity, and her ultimate professional downfall and resurrection.


As the movie version of Jackie Kallen, Ryan dresses, walks, talks and verbally spars an awful lot like Julia Roberts did as Erin Brockovich and, like her predecessor, she tries to trade in her cherubic image for something a little, well, grittier. Picture lace-up bodices, snakeskin leather minis, suits with satin lapels cut down to there and other skintight, skin-patterned accoutrements, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what her character looks like. Add an indescribable, yet undeniably lowbrow, accent, and you'll know what she sounds like, too. But underneath it all, this is still Meg Ryan, cute as a button with those big blue eyes and the nose that wrinkles when she smiles. There are moments when Ryan seems to tap into her inner gnarly girl, but they're few and far between; most of the time she comes off like a little kid playing dress-up, which is kind of fun to watch for a while, but eventually you want her mom to come and take her off your hands. Epps fares better, although he's a bit duller, as 'Lethal' Luther, Kallen's star boxer, and when the ever-charming Dutton, who also directed, has his few scenes in the spotlight, he shines. Less impressive is a tight-lipped Shalhoub as LaRocca, whose vendetta against Kallen culminates in a ''curtain call'' scene so forced and ridiculous it would have ruined the film had it not already been steadily progressing downhill from the start.


Producer Robert Cort says he and the other filmmakers never intended to make a ''biographical'' film; instead, they tried to focus on Jackie's ''astounding accomplishments in the man-eat-man world of boxing.'' For the record, the real Jackie Kallen was first a professional journalist and later a businesswoman with her own public relations firm, and she represented several athletes in that capacity before turning to managing her own boxers. No doubt that story sounded an awful lot like the female version of Jerry Maguire, which is probably why it wasn't made. Instead, the filmmakers try a different gambit: They tell Kallen's life story as if she were boxing's answer to Erin Brockovich--the ol' white-trash-gal-makes-good storyline. It's not especially original; it's not particularly compelling; but it may sell a few movie tickets, although to whom is the burning question.

Against the Ropes would play great to Lifetime's mostly female audience, if it weren't for all the blood and beating. (Director Dutton, a former boxer himself, has a lot of experience here, although from a cinematic perspective this is no Ali, where the slo-mo and close-ups of the boxers were poetry in motion.) And it'd do equally well on ESPN if it weren't for all the corny, chick-flick, tear-jerking stuff.

Bottom Line

As it stands, Against the Ropes is just where its title puts it--between a rope and a hard sweaty boxer--and it can't win any bouts that way.