By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

I watched this with Moon, the daughter of a tough former Army sergeant and boxing instructor. Moon grew up watching fights and being around the boxing culture, just as Jackie Kallen, protagonist of "Against the Ropes" did.

Meg Ryan
Even Meg Ryan can't make you root for Jackie Kallen.

At the pivotal (and contrived) moment in the film, the "big fight sequence" near the end, I looked over, and Moon was asleep. And not just asleep. Fast asleep. KOed. Sawing logs. Big ones. And you could not be any more "target audience" than she is.

The problem with this picture is not motif, boxing, or character. Jackie is occasionally engaging enough at face value, as played by Meg Ryan with a whiskey-and-tobacco-husky voice (though we never see her use any whiskey or tobacco) and her Midwestern twang and her absurd wardrobe borrowed from the old "Erin Brockovich" or "Klute" trunks, perhaps in the hopes that those scuzzy wardrobes would fill in the story holes.

The problem is that this film does not engage you at all, at no emotional level, not even for the briefest instant. There is an odd visceral moment here and there when somebody gets punched, or the sound is laid in effectively. But other than that ... zilch.

Maybe the problem is that it is not taken from a good source text, one with its own emotional engine or drive. It's just spliced together with anecdotes, and not necessarily good anecdotes.

Maybe it's also that as a director, Roc Dutton is a good heavyweight stage actor. Dutton had his screenwriter go around and watch fights and fight prep, and regurgitate some odd little stories about promoting. But there is no effective through-line that makes you want to watch the picture.

Dutton himself says he didn't want to co-star as the trainer, Felix, and was promised the likes of Morgan Freeman for the role. As if. So Dutton did it himself.

Charles S. Dutton
Acting is tough. Directing is tough. Doing both? Bad idea.

The entire picture has a do-it-yourself feel that might be good for pulling yourself up by your bootstraps as a small-time boxing promoter who happens to be a woman who dresses like a tramp, but it doesn't necessarily work for a film director who happens not to have a clue about how to make an audience care.

The movie is set in Cleveland. Kallen made her bones around Detroit. But since "Blue Collar," "True Romance," "8 Mile" and several adaptations of good Elmore Leonard novels were set in Detroit, the bar was set too high there. But even for Cleveland settings, "Ropes" makes "Major League" look like "Raging Bull." At least in "Major League," they were going for jokes.

A sampling of dialogue:

"Boxing is a team sport."

"Jab! Jab! Jab!"

"I'm taking all the risks." (In "Hard Times," the irony of a promoter making that statement is allowed to settle in the air and hang there in all its absurdity. But in "Against the Ropes," the line is played straight, as if fact.)

We see Jackie morph into a hard-boiled type out for herself, clearly true of nearly all successful boxing promoters. But then she is back brought to her senses and dewy-eyed sensitivities by Omar Epps' Luther. Epps is otherwise quite believable as a fighter, only he acts like he needs Jackie to hold his hand while training.

She is also brought to her senses by Local TV Sports Guy With Nice Teeth, in the thankless position of having to serve as conscience, wronged Jackie-lover (who in boxing wouldn't blow off a local TV pre-fight spot for HBO?), and quasi-love interest. (Meg is allowed to play it so sterile that it's more of a "like" interest.)

For a woman who dresses like she's looking for a date -- and a certain kind of date, at that -- Jackie is strangely absent of real action. Oh, by the way, Jackie is also brought to her senses by Tony Shaloub as LaRocca, the Oily Mob Promoter, and then by Felix, the World-Weary Trainer With the Heart of Gold, who ... oh, forget it.

Meg Ryan, Omar Epps
Sure Epps is convincing, but he can't save this movie.

Jackie really loves boxing, only we never quite learn why -- cute-little-girl, brusque-daddy, kind-uncle opening notwithstanding. The whole exercise seems a little too cleaned-up, a little too nice, a little too cut-and-dried -- like it's hiding something from us, only we can tell what.

In the end, when Roc Dutton has staged his version of Hagler-Hearns, his reason (not counting money) for doing this grimy little flick, and the banished blonde walks determinedly past the crowd and into the ring to the rising score, then pushes aside the grizzled trainer she hired to school Luther so she can hold his face and tell him he can so do it, and, by the way, he should switch from southpaw to righty because that will throw the soon-to-be-doomed champ ... after all that, the groaning and sighing wasn't coming from stadium seats or floorboards or Roc's belt or hatband.

I did say, "Excuse me," though.

Ralph Wiley has written articles for Sports Illustrated, Premiere, GQ, and National Geographic, and many national newspapers. He was one of the original NFL Insiders on NBC. His many books include "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir," "Why Black People Tend To Shout," "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X" with Spike Lee, "Dark Witness," "Best Seat in the House" with Spike Lee, "Born to Play" with Eric Davis, and "Growing Up King" with Dexter Scott King and the children of Martin Luther King Jr. He contributes to many ESPN productions, and bats cleanup on a weekly basis for Page 2.




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Ralph
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