Fight Movie Review No. 2: Against the Ropes

Meg Ryan and Omar Epps starred as a fictional version of Jackie Kallen and a really fictional version of James Toney in a 2004 box office flop. Since it's really timely, let's talk about that movie now!

Gather round, #boxingfriends! Join me for the magnificent tale of Jackie Kallen, a real person who is barely depicted on the screen, and "Lethal" Luther Shaw, a fighter thought to be (extremely) loosely based on James "Lights Out" Toney, as they make their way from the ghetto to a big fight for the middleweight championship of the world.

Here's the trailer for 2004's Against the Ropes, in case you forgot what it was, or never knew that it existed:


This could have been a great movie. The source material was there. One needs only to read the Kallen/Toney section of Donald McRae's Dark Trade to understand that there is a great story to be told. But the movie we got does such total disservice to that real story, which took place on the earth we live in, with two real people breathing the air that you and I breathe right this second that you're reading this (though after I've written this), that it almost defies description.

This is no biopic. Meg Ryan's portrayal of Kallen, a highly successful real life boxing manager who broke down gender barriers and opened doors that nobody has really stepped through again on a major scale, is just a fictional character with a real person's name. This movie may as well have had that thing at the end where it alerts us all that this is fictional and any resemblance to blah blah blah is purely coincidental. It's that far off base.

So, really, the thing to do is to distance yourself from the real Kallen story and just take this movie for what it is: a movie, a fictional story that doesn't reflect the real life events very closely at all. We do this all the time. Take the Marvel movies, for instance. Mega-nerds bitch about continuity issues and this shouldn't happen that way, but I've always found that odd, not because I don't get it (sadly, I really do get it, as I'm sure parts of this review, too, will reveal), but because I've always chosen to see the Marvel movies as their own new universe for established characters. In this one, Rogue is a teenage girl. In another one, Wolverine and Sabretooth are brothers. And in yet another, those are The Avengers. Whatever, sometimes the movies are good, sometimes they're not.

That said, I can overlook the factual inaccuracies of this movie, even as they reach the point of making this probably 70% fiction (at least). Is it a good movie, standing alone? Is this a good story, told well, with good performances and a nice pace and a story you can sink into?

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No.

And that's the actual problem with Against the Ropes. It stinks. This was Charles S. Dutton's directorial debut in a feature film, and argues that he should stick to acting. He's excellent in his on-screen role here as Felix, the trainer that Jackie (Meg Ryan) calls in to work with a thug she "discovers" after she finds another prospective client smoking crack in the projects. Dutton is powerful, as he usually is. He's got a quiet sort of force on the screen; every dramatic role he takes is one where the character, no matter where he is on life's totem pole, seems to command respect. Here, he plays what we learn is a trainer who has long since left the sport behind. He's did similar work in a one-episode guest role on "The Sopranos," where he was a patrolman who ran afoul of Tony Soprano. As a low-ranking police officer, he held his own with the mob boss we'd learned to fear for many seasons.

Dutton is also the only actor in the entire film whose character seems to live in the same world with the same human emotions as the rest of us. Actually, Omar Epps as Luther Shaw is entirely credible, and he's fine if forgettable in his role, the forgettable part not really his fault, since Luther is a secondary character to Kallen. This is not a movie about a fighter. This is a movie about a fighter's manager.

Ryan's portrayal of Kallen is all makeup, hair, odd facial expressions as a way to react to news both good and bad, and the most miserable Detroit accent you'll ever hear. It's a strange choice to even keep the accent, really. It is a cartoonish take on the way the real Jackie Kallen speaks, and accents are hard to really get right. But the movie doesn't take place in Detroit, and the only time we even see Detroit is in the opening establishing bit with a childhood version of Jackie being told, "Hey, you! Get out of the ring! You don't belong in here, even though I'm your father and presumably drove you to the gym!" Given that the movie fled to The Cleve, couldn't the accent have just been ditched and thus not have been such a distraction?

Boxing-wise, the movie is pretty out there. Luther Shaw rises to title contention in about 14 or 15 fights, with Jackie making media waves and eventually callously insulting him, albeit by accident, at a press conference, which starts the dissolution of their relationship. At one point, Luther didn't outright say that Jackie was a mother to him, but when asking why she didn't have kids (another removal from reality), he says he thinks she'd be "dope" as a mother. (This is minor thing, but both Epps and Ryan have these slang words only occasionally thrown in, to the point they feel terribly forced.)

Jackie pursues a fight for Luther with the middleweight champion, HERNANDEZ, who turns out to be just about the most talentless movie boxer in history, though Shaw isn't far behind himself. To get this fight, Jackie has to make a deal with a promoter who has been demeaning her since he first appeared on the screen, Sam LaRocca (Tony Shalhoub), who has mob ties that are never explicitly stated but are very clear.

It's all a bit much. LaRocca rushes Shaw into the Big Fight on three weeks notice, which is bizarre, and paints him as a brainless dope of a promoter, so bent on petty revenge fantasies against Kallen that he can't even remember that he just picked up what appears to be a red-hot, unbeaten prospect with great natural talent who is still learning the game. Promoters and matchmakers are often accused of "marinating" too long, but how often do they rush a star prospect into something they absolutely know for sure he can't handle? And to stick it to a manager who just gave them a hot prospect and rising star?

Not that I take this seriously, mind you, but the idea of all of this amuses me. Shalhoub seethes through every scene he's in, always looking about one grunting breath away from striking Jackie, a thorn in his side who has really done nothing but exist and occasionally speak. He is a shallow villain to say the least.

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The movie really reaches the bottom of its barrel when Kallen, perched in the rafters like 1997 Sting, watching Luther get his ass handed to him in the shadows, makes her way not just to ringside, where she wouldn't be allowed in the first place, but literally into the fucking ring, just strolling across the canvas like this is a totally normal thing, as nobody really reacts. The HERNANDEZ corner doesn't react, the referee doesn't react, no officials jump in, security isn't alarmed.

No, she just marches in there to deliver a tearful, impassioned plea, and then the Big Fight comes to its climax. It is insane to the point of being hilarious. It's like a parody of a boxing movie at this point. Later, we are treated to a slow clap, and even Tony Shalhoub's cold black heart melts just a little bit.

The movie, it should be noted, also reunites Shalhoub and Tim Daly from "Wings." So that's a thing that you can say.

Against the Ropes is not good. I mean, nobody thinks it is, except Roger Ebert, who rest his soul had some very strange tastes here and there. It's hard for me to imagine anyone watching this and really enjoying it. Even if you aren't a boxing fan at all, but just a person who could very easily enjoy a boxing movie for its dramatic qualities or whatever, it's a really poorly constructed film. Some of the reactions that the various characters give to events are straight out of "Children's Hospital" or "Stella" or the like. But they are meant to be taken seriously, lending dramatic weight to what's happening. It just doesn't work.

There's a lot of talent in this cast. It's not like Ryan, Dutton, Epps, Shalhoub, and Daly can't act. They were given a lousy script that I'm guessing got chopped all to hell, and the end result is a choppy, inconsistent movie that rushes along and never firmly establishes its characters as people we can or should care about. It's really a weird ass movie when you get right down to it.

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Movie Rating: D. The film avoids an F mostly because Meg Ryan does look great in that purple get-up early in the movie, and I would like to see a film about the Dutton character just, like, being in the gym and making grilled cheese sandwiches at home while he watches old episodes of "The Rockford Files" and shit.

Also: The movie was a total box office bomb, making a bit over $6 million on a $39 million budget. I recall it was marketed poorly and the early reviews just sort of killed it, because they were overwhelmingly bad, as they should have been. For some reason, Showtime airs this movie a lot, and it's currently available on Showtime On Demand, which is where I watched it for the first time since probably 2006 or so, when I first saw the movie. I figured while it was there, it would be good to throw this one in. Next time out, maybe I'll do one of the classics. Y'all can throw out suggestions for fight movies you'd like to see in the feature, too.

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