'Ropes' is a lightweight


Meg Ryan wants a change. Badly.

After more than a decade of romantic-comedy roles, at which she became a modern-day master, Meg aspires to more. She's tried playing an Army hero (Courage Under Fire). Last year, she tried showing considerable amounts of skin in a dark murder-mystery (In The Cut). Now, in Against the Ropes, she's playing a female boxing manager from the Bronx.

Someone needs to tell her that a mark of wisdom is understanding one's limitations.

Based loosely on the life of Jackie Kallen, whose success in the late '80s proved something of a shocker to the all-boys club of boxing managers, the movie casts Ryan as an underappreciated secretary to an obnoxious fight promoter. Tired of being shoved into the background, especially by Sam LaRocca (Tony Shalhoub, channeling Snidely Whiplash), a big-time manager as piggish and obnoxious as humanly possible, she finally speaks her mind. The result: LaRocca dares her to put up or shut up, offering her one of his fighter's contracts and wishing her luck with the guy.

You'd think that's where the story begins, that Kallen would take this unpolished pearl and turn him into a pugilist of renown. But you'd be wrong; the guy is perfunctorily written out of the plot (turns out he's as bad as LaRocca thinks he is).

But then fate smiles on Kallen, and she finds this unpolished street fighter and drug runner named Luther (Omar Epps), who shows all sorts of potential, at least to Jackie's trained eye. So she convinces him to sign on with her, convinces wise old trainer Felix Reynolds (Charles S. Dutton, who also directs) to come out of retirement and starts booking fights for her boy. Oh yeah, she also wears gaudy, skin-tight outfits that help call attention to herself (and, by extension, her fighter) and battles all the good old boys determined to keep her down.

Those who've figured out the rest of the movie won't be disappointed; among its sins is a reliance on cliche that borders on the slavish. Dutton gives his character a certain grace, and his direction is uniformly solid. But this is a star vehicle for the new Meg Ryan, and as such it rises and falls on the strength of her character alone.

There's nothing wrong with Ryan as an actress; earlier roles have shown she can do dramatic parts just fine. But there's not a moment in Against the Ropes where you forget this is perky Meg Ryan up onscreen, talking trashy and acting tough.

Against The Ropes

Starring Meg Ryan, Omar Epps

Directed by Charles S. Dutton

Released by Paramount

Rated PG-13 (Language, violence, brief sensuality, some drug material)

Time 110 minutes

Sun Score **

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