The story of how Jackie Kallen made it as a manager in the testosterone-driven boxing game is a saga worthy of the sort of treatment accorded NORMA RAE or even Erin Brockovitch. Alas, AGAINST THE ROPES does not measure up to either of those films, though leading lady Meg Ryan as Kallen does turn in a worthy performance. She’s undercut by an underwritten script that plays more like an outline and a skimpy one at that.
It starts with a flashback to Kallen’s childhood in her father’s boxing gym. She’s in the ring, giving advice to a boxer when her father sends her out of the ring with a rebuke and calls in a boy of the same age. Naturally, the boy would rather read a comic book than pay attention to boxing and, further naturally, Kallen gets a pep talk from her fighter-uncle who tells her that she can do anything she likes. It’s a speech repeated not 10 minutes later to the grown-up Kallen by her best friend. Kallen’s working as an executive assistant at a boxing arena and taking the usual guff that manly men spout at women, especially those in the tight sweaters and short skirts that Kallen favors. There is all the spark and imagination of a mediocre Lifetime Television for Women movie. After the exposition comes the turning point. This is where Kallen finally tells off boxing impresario Sam LaRocca (Tony Shaloub), who will become her arch-nemesis by selling her the contract of a broken-down fighter for a buck. She doesn’t end up managing that guy, but instead the drug dealer, Luther Shaw (Omar Epps), who came to collect the money for the boxers crack. It’s one of those twists of fate moments as we see Kallen watch Luther deck the boxer and his roommate without breaking a sweat. There are the obligatory scenes of Kallen trying to convince a highly skeptical Shaw to turn pro and the further obligatory scenes of the way she claws their way to the top, loses sight of what’s really important, and then redeems herself.
Ryan has a nice earthly quality here, with a gravelly voice and grit to her sashay. As her Kallen watches a match, she captures with her expression exactly the way Kallen sees the action, analyzing the moves like the pro she is while still enthralled by what she considers the magic of the sport. The problem is that her obstacles are all too flimsy in a story that is episodic rather than insightful. There is no menace to the guys lined up to keep her from succeeding, even LaRocca, played with a stony stare and a grim face by Shaloub, seems more cranky that cutthroat. Epps, on the other hand, takes his part and works it for all it’s worth. That he and Ryan share one of the best scenes in the film is no accident. It’s when Kallen is showing Shaw the apartment she’s arranged for him and starts going down the list of all the forms, statements, and contracts he needs to sign. Its everyday stuff, but Luther puts aside his pride and tells her that he has no clue about any of it. His career dealing drugs didn’t prepare him for it. Epps invests the moment with the sense that this is an unguarded moment in a life that hasn’t allowed him many. Ryan’s reading of the response is played perfectly, without condescension while still acknowledging the trust Shaw is showing her. Also good is Charles S. Dutton, who also directed, as the gentle curmudgeon of a boxing coach Kallen pulls out of retirement.
AGAINST THE ROPES may not be a contender, it hasn’t turned me into a boxing fan, nor has it made me understand why other people are. It fails on many levels except one, Kallen. If a woman in spike heels and short skirts can make men in the fight game respect her, she’s a woman worth knowing. And one that deserved a film treatment as gutsy as she is.