Dressed as demurely as Cher or J.Lo at an awards show, Meg Ryan wanders into a locker room and momentarily dazzles the male athletes and managers.
Nevertheless, they don’t mince words when they tell her what they think about this entrance into exclusively male territory. In their collective opinion, she’s “not man enough” to get involved in boxing.
This early scene from “Against the Ropes” might have been truly memorable if the movie had any style or a sense of humor. But there’s a bland slickness about the picture that keeps it from reaching for anything but competence. And the sappy finale, which dips considerably below that standard, is difficult to watch with a straight face.
Very loosely based on the life of boxing manager Jackie Kallen, “Against the Ropes” was written by Cheryl Edwards, whose only previous screenplay credit was 2001’s “Save the Last Dance,” another story of a white woman who falls for an inner-city black youth.
In this instance, however, the attraction is purely platonic. Kallen, played with gum-chewing, head-tossing swagger by Ryan, believes enough in a young Cleveland boxer, Luther Shaw (Omar Epps), that she risks losing her job as secretary to Irving Abel (Joe Cortese), the pushy, annoyingly paternalistic director of the Cleveland Coliseum.
She also risks being blacklisted by the male-dominated boxing establishment, led by treacherous kingpin Sam LaRocca (Tony Shalhoub), who is especially dedicated to the notion that women don’t belong in sports. In the process of establishing herself as Shaw’s manager, she manipulates and then betrays a helpful TV sports reporter (Tim Daly). Meanwhile, Shaw, prodded by LaRocca’s taunts, wonders if she’s using him as well.
Few of their showdowns draw blood, perhaps because there’s always the sense that a safety net will catch these characters and set them on the right track. Very little is really at stake. Even LaRocca, who comes on like a Joe Pesci psychotic in his early scenes, proves redeemable.
Perhaps the only surprising element in “Against the Ropes” is the mediocrity of the fight scenes, which lack rhythm and suspense, even during the climactic final round. Charles S. Dutton, who has directed a couple of cable-television specials (“First Time Felon,” “The Corners”), makes his big-screen directing debut with the movie, and it’s not an auspicious one.
Few of the actors are seen at their best. Ryan, who earned some of the best reviews of her career for last fall’s “In the Cut,” brings lots of abrasive energy to her role, and not much else. Shalhoub, ordinarily an inventive scene-stealer, is obvious in an obvious role. Epps and Daly make good first impressions, but the script rarely suggests more than one dimension to the characters they’re assigned.
Dutton has also cast himself as Felix, a veteran trainer who helps Luther get ready for the big fight that, of course, brings the story to its end. He’s wise and genial and he provides what little heart the movie has.