Against the Ropes is a mess of a melodrama, brazen enough to bill itself as inspired by the story of Jackie Kallen, a journalist and mother of two, who became the first female manager in the world of professional boxing.Played here by Meg Ryan, as a modern-day single female and PR lackey, Jackie is a ball of furious ambition, who stumbles across Luther Shaw (Omar Epps), a raw talent with world class potential. Luring renowned trainer Felix (Charles Dutton) out of retirement, she gambles everything on Luther, quitting her job to manage him full time. Brushing aside mobbed-up promoters and opponents alike, Luther proceeds to tear through the undercards to title contention in just 15 minutes of carefully choreographed screen time.
Meg, dressed like Barbarella and affecting a ludicrous, husky Detroit accent, is a knockout to look at, but the producers are so intent on celebrating Jackie that the film neglects the basics. As her protégé “Lethal” Luther Shaw, Omar Epps is a paper thin pugilist whose backstory is revealed over salads in one short sequence.Director Dutton, does deliver one great scene in the third act that resonates more deeply, when Jackie’s and Luther’s ambitions conflict and she makes a thoughtless remark that cuts him to the core. It’s a wonderful moment and it suggests that this film could’ve amounted to much more than a formulaic Hollywood tale of plucky underdogs defying the odds.
After having its release date delayed by almost two years, Against the Ropes bombed at the box office in 2004. Watching it again I felt like I’d taken as much punishment as the boxers. Then came the Big Fight, a standing ovation, and bang, I actually found myself moved by the pay-off.
After Against the Ropes floored me with a late sucker punch, I am Sam backed me into a corner, mainly because it’s rare to watch Michelle Pfeiffer play fourth fiddle in her own movie. If you watch I am Sam with your head, you’re likely to end up groggy from the barrage of emotional haymakers being hurled at you. If you watch it with your heart however, you may find the ending cathartic.
Sean Penn, playing the eponymous Sam, a Beatles-loving, single father with a mental age of 7, completely transforms his speech patterns and body language for the role. It’s a deeply committed piece of acting, with no single moment where he drops his guard. The very authenticity of his performance guarantees the rest of the cast will look like journeymen in comparison, with the exception of Dianne Wiest, whose talent far exceeds her cameo as Sam’s agoraphobic neighbour.You can’t help but root for Sam Dawson as he fights against the social system for custody of his 7-year-old daughter, Lucy (Dakota Fanning). In his corner we find highly-strung, uber lawyer Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), taking the case on a pro bono basis, to prove to her colleagues that she’s more than just a PR-hungry, morally questionable, Porsche-driving schyster.Michelle in full, head-turning, ultra-glossy mode, gets to kick down a door while wearing a pair of high heeled, knee-length suede boots, but for all Rita’s showboating, the film never comes close to making a credible case for Sam being allowed to raise his daughter alone. The alternative option of a foster mother (Laura Dern) and a stable family, is counted out. All you need is love.As I mentioned at the opening bell, this isn’t a role Michelle was born to play. If Meg Ryan’s blend of confidence and cleavage in Against the Ropes feels slightly off-kilter, Michelle has never looked more uncomfortable. Rita Harrison could have been a contender, but then again so could Jackie Kallen, whose outrageous outfits were originally due to be filled by La Pfeiffer.If Michelle and Meg could’ve swapped roles I have no idea who would have done the better job. I only know that as the judges deliver their verdict on this bout between brassy exhibitionists, neither comes away looking like a winner.