Against the Ropes (2004)

I hope that my story will be inspirational.
— Jackie Kallen, “Queen of the Ring: Jackie Kallen Then & Now”

Listen to the Barbie doll with the glass balls.
— Sam LaRocca (Tony Shalhoub), Against the Ropes

“And you could just sit there, and look at someone,” says producer Robert Cort by way of introducing the subject of his film, Jackie Kallen, “And see both the enormous charisma, the enormous balls of the woman, the courage to fight the system that she had, and sense what she probably gave up and the mistakes she made and the transgressions that she followed to accomplish her goal in that world. That felt like a great character for a movie.”

Kallen, an exceptionally successful woman boxing manager, has had an incredible experience, much of it shaped by her own unstoppable determination and talent. As she manager fighters in Detroit (changed to Cleveland in Cort’s movie, Against the Ropes), a mother and wife (details omitted from the film), she also managed successful careers for multiple boxers (reduced to one for the movie). Against the Ropes begins in 1972, when Jackie is an adorable child (Skye McCole Bartusiak), observing the action in her father’s boxing gym. One point here is to show her gift: she accurately diagnoses the errors made by a struggling boxer. The other point is show what she’s up against, obviously illustrated when her father dismisses her outright: “You don’t belong here.”

Even as her Uncle Roy (the very struggling boxer to whom she offered advice) reminds her, “The world is an oyster and you’re a pearl,” dad is calling her a “midget with a head full of stupid.” Unsurprisingly, Jackie’s story is about triumphing over small-minded men. And they are all men, in the boxing world, which is only one of the many reasons that Jackie stands out so outrageously. As an adult, she will also take on and beat these men at their own game, by managing winning boxers and becoming something of a celebrity in her own right. “It seemed like a microcosm of life,” says Kallen of the sport she loves.

On its face, this sounds like a simple trajectory — much like the one established by Erin Brockovich, whose success reportedly inspired Paramount to greenlight this project — but it’s complicated by particular and pressing issues, namely, the ways that race, masculinity, and media shape expectations and possibilities in the boxing world.

Cut forward to “Cleveland, Present Day,” where Jackie is executive secretary for overbearing Cleveland Coliseum director Abel (Joe Cortese). He has her making coffee and taking the blame for promotional schemes that clients reject, but Jackie is determined. Supported in spirit by Abel’s receptionist Renee (Kerry Washington) and a local tv reporter, Gavin (Tim Daly), Jackie waits impatiently for her big chance. She gets it when she argues one night with snidely promoter Sam LaRocca (Tony Shalhoub). Infuriated by her audacious claims to knowledge, Sam offers her a losing boxer’s contract for a dollar. Jackie has her foot in the door.

But now, she has to get this boxer to earnest work in the ring, no small task when she learns that he’s not only unprepared, but an addict. Jackie drives over to his apartment in the projects (bringing her one girlfriend Renee along, as Renee wryly observes, “for black-up”), where she finds that her boxer-for-a-buck is a crackhead, not exactly fit for training. As such things tend to happen in movies that rely on coincidences to get from Point A to Point B, at that very moment of disappointment and danger: a fight breaks out in the apartment (under a DMX track) between the boxer’s buddy, Luther and the interloper, demonstrating impressive skills and, importantly, the fact that he’s already working out, as his remarkable musculature testifies.

Reasonably angry, distrustful, and full of himself, Luther brings all kinds of energy to the movie, as does Jackie’s decision to hire old associate and veteran corner man Felix (Dutton) in order to train the kid. Amid the requisite training sequences (jogging, sparring, heavy bag punching), Jackie also prevails upon Gavin to report on the story. Not incidentally, this story involves her. If the “projects survivor makes good” is old news in boxing, the white girl pushing her way into gyms, arenas, and all-guy offices is something of a bombshell.

This is a great story, even if it’s reshaped from real life: among other changes, Luther is a combination character, based on several of Jackie’s boxers. It’s even better that Edwards’ script focuses on the relationship between Jackie and Luther; one scene in particular is carefully touching, when Jackie finds him a new apartment, and he must confess that he has no experience doing his taxes or filling out leases. If the movie had done more of this, it would have been more convincing than it is, following treacly genre conventions.

Paramount’s DVD release includes two featurettes that also tend to leave out real-life details (Kallen mentions the kids and the husband, quickly), in order to underline her heroism and energy. In the making-of documentary, “A Ringside Seat,” writer Cheryl Edwards, director Charles Dutton, and the primary actors, as well as Kallen, describe her greatness. “You almost never read a script that has a female protagonist that has this much paradox and is this complicated,” says Meg Ryan, who plays Kallen. Some comments pertain to the production per se, as when Omar Epps, who plays Jackie’s boxer Luther Shaw, notes, “I’m at a point where I wanna grow, and I wanna find new things within myself, but I’m only me so I don’t know everything.”

The second featurette, “Queen of the Ring: Jackie Kallen Then & Now,” repeats much of the same information: Jackie is an inspiration. As Kallen puts it, your life story, once “sold to Hollywood,” slips away from you. “It changes and changes, and it’s not exactly your story anymore, but it’s inspired by you, and that in itself is a great honor.” Cort says, “I think she is thrilled with the movie we made.” Pretty to think so. The complications of the character do look intriguing, but they’re so shortshrifted by the plot contrivances and corny soundtrack, that the movie can’t recover.

As Jackie becomes more dedicated to her own (admittedly exciting) media stardom than in her fighter’s career (except as this career furthers her own), the film suggests that she must come to terms with the very ambition and aggressiveness that have enabled her professional success as a liability. Put another way, she’s become as self-serving as the corrupt male blowhards she’s been railing against, and now, the film suggests, she needs to be a girl again. Not a bad thing to be, of course, but Against the Ropes doesn’t offer a sustained critique of gender stereotypes or capitalism’s collision with sports, especially as this collision is inflected by race and class prejudices and lack of opportunities.

On this tip, the film also lapses into easy boxing movie clichés, despite its occasional efforts to complicate said clichés. So, underdog Luther makes it to a championship bout, even as Jackie is learning her own hard lesson about loyalty and fairness. That this big fight and Jackie’s lesson climax at the same time, and happen also to push Felix — the trainer — quite literally out of the picture, to the point that she comes up with the best corner advice at the crucial moment, as Felix looks on, reduced to silence.