- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

After the near-prostrate erotic morbidity of “In the Cut,” Meg Ryan’s career continues to stagger in “Against the Ropes,” an all too suggestive title for a leading lady on the defensive.

The Ryan braintrust must have envisioned the new movie as a rabble-rouser with “Erin Brockovich” potential. It’s a heavily fictionalized biopic, predicated on the unconventional professional aspirations of Jackie Kallen, a former newspaper reporter and publicist from Detroit who branched out somewhat quixotically to boxing management. Defying the odds in a male-dominated line of endeavor, she enjoyed success, notably with middleweight champion James Toney. His screen equivalent is played by Omar Epps: Luther Shaw, a Cleveland diamond in the rough discovered roughing up deadbeat addicts for a crack dealer.

How could such a misfit alliance miss? Needful pixie and surly punk.

The actual Jackie Kallen, who surfaces briefly as an inquiring sports reporter, had some baggage that seems expendable to screenwriter Cheryl Edwards: a couple of youngsters and her own public relations firm were preambles to a prizefighting plunge.

Miss Ryan is introduced as office slavey to Joe Cortese’s Irving Abel, who mismanages the Cleveland Coliseum, following the dictates of a tyrannical boxing promoter called Sam LaRocca, played by Tony Shalhoub. Mr. Shalhoub humorlessly bullies and underestimates Miss Ryan, an indomitable underdog. Surely the comic aspects of such a rivalry should have been emphasized with these two performers, rather than the mawkish and square, which are unwisely allowed to predominate.

Charles S. Dutton provides some welcome stability and plausibility as Felix Reynolds, the veteran trainer Miss Ryan hires to school her fuming prospect. Unfortunately, Mr. Dutton is unable to stabilize the material in a more decisive way while doubling as director.

The plot manipulations are destined to go totally bonkers. Jackie, who alienates Luther and everyone else near and dear to her by getting a big shot complex when courted by Home Box Office, must surrender Luther’s contract as penance. Then she saves the day by crashing the Coliseum on the night of a title fight in order to pump up her ex-protege with a pep talk that makes defeat unthinkable. Officially banned from the arena, she makes like a phantom while infiltrating fearlessly. At this level of humbug the film has better odds of entering the Camp Classic and Guilty Pleasure pantheons than making sense in sporting or inspirational terms.

A defective vanity showcase for Miss Ryan, who appears to be at the mercy of bad articulation days as well as bad hair days, “Against the Ropes” would require prodigious stamina and ingenuity to prop her up for gallant glorification.

*1/2

TITLE: “Against the Ropes”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual vulgarity)

CREDITS: Directed by Charles S. Dutton. Written by Cheryl Edwards. Cinematography by Jack N. Green. Boxing choreography by Nick Alachiotis.

RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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