Against the Ropes
There's a ritualistic quality to most sports films, and "Against the Ropes" is careful to observe all the rules: 1) Set the scene, in this case establish Jackie Kallen (Meg Ryan) as the put-upon assistant to a lout of a boxing promoter. 2) Find the path to independence, in this case come upon street-fighter Luther Shaw (Omar Epps), see that he's got boxing greatness in him, and become his manager. 3) Build up the early successes, in this case hire retired trainer Felix Reynolds (Charles Dutton, who also directed the film) to teach Luther the ring skills he needs to get a fight with the champion. 4) Head for disaster, in this case Jackie's terminal hubris that makes her forget her old friends and nearly wreck Luther's career. 5) Find the selfless act that saves the day and leads to the championship, achieved in this case by bowing out of the picture and giving up Luther's contract so he can go on to win it all.
It's touching, and for all I know it's an accurate account of the life of the real Jackie Kallen, who as the end titles tell us went on to manage champion boxers in six different weight classes. But it's highly unlikely that her career went the way the screenplay by Cheryl Edwards has it, and if in fact it did, then we must call her career a cliché. (Kallen appears briefly as a reporter asking a question at a press conference, unfortunately in grotesque makeup that makes her look like an aging hooker.)
Ryan, now well past her cute stage, has recently tried to broaden her range, starring in the misbegotten suspense film "In the Cut." She does well here, making good use of her appeal, but does it within the character she plays, and she acts both her age and her sexiness quite well. Omar Epps, in a one-note role as the would-be champion, has screen magnetism to spare; he needs a better film to show to his best advantage. Tony Shalhoub plays Sam LaRocca, the requisite bad guy, with cigar in teeth and a vicious snap of voice and head when he's crossed; the role is designed to let him chew the scenery and he does it very well. Kerry Washington, as Renée, Jackie's friend and Luther's lover, is also good in yet another clichéd role of the sport-film genre.
Dutton as the old trainer is superb in a familiar role, and as the film's director he shows great ability to compose a scene, to choreograph the fight scenes, and to give his actors room to work. This is his first feature (he's directed television episodes), and he deserves to direct many more. What interest the film has is due to Dutton's ability to take us past the predictable and show us even a bit of underlying truth.