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Paramount Studios presents
Luther:: You know, you got all these expectations. Whatcha gonna do if this don't work out?
DVD ReviewIt's not a very good sign when a movie sits gathering dust for the better part of a year. Even more puzzling when its lead is a big box-office queen. Such was the case as Meg Ryan's long delayed Against the Ropes lay dormant, awaiting a release that finally came last February. The marketing did nothing for me in terms of motorvatin' to the local Bijou to catch it, and so I feared the worst—particularly after the tepid response to In the Cut, the actress' failed attempt to break away from her cute-as-a-button persona that's colored her most successful work.
Talk about the promotional department dropping the ball. Despite its formulaic approach and occasional predictability, this 2004 entry into the sports movie academy is a surprisingly entertaining look at real-life boxing promoter Jackie Kallen. Stunning the sports world by becoming the world's first female boxing manager, her story became a dual triumph when her first protégé eventually became a bonafide champion in a very short time.
From her days as a adolescent tomboy, Jackie lived for the sport, thanks to the influence of her supportive Uncle Ray, a popular boxer in his day. All grown up and looking just like Meg Ryan after this peek into the past, her attempts at heeding her kin's advice to "kick butt and break hearts" have led to nowhere but a dead-end job, working for a scummy boxing promoter (Joe Cortese) as an executive assistant. Fancy title, but basically her gig consists of fetching coffee, obligatory paper- and leg-work and playing yes (wo)man. Still, she's closer to the ring than any of her fellow fans, a connection that soon comes in handy.
After one of those "anything you can do, I can do better" moments pitting boxing manager Sam LaRocca (Tony Shaloub) against Kallen, he offers her the chance of a lifetime: to buy one of his supposedly washed-up fighters for a buck (take that, eBay). But—a-ha!—remember the old saying about getting what you pay for? Boy, does it ever hit home when Jackie pays a friendly visit to her initial prospect and discovers he's a closet crackhead whose roomie thinks Kallen and secretary friend Renee (Kerry Washington) have come to drop off fresh chunks for cooking. Wait, it gets worse. Barging in like a thunderstorm in summer comes Luther (Omar Epps), a neighbor down the hall who's agitated at all the noise and proceeds to show his boarders just how ticked he is—with his fists.
Following the natural instinct to run like hell, Jackie's mental instant-replay makes her pause; despite a bad first impression, she feels this punky kid's got that Marvelous Marvin Hagler southpaw thing going on. Ever bold, she marches back to his digs and. though it takes some persistence (something Jackie never runs out of) in order to wear him down, he hesitantly takes her up on her offer to become her first promising prospect.
Though it treads oft-worn athletic movie clichés (inevitable training montage, conflict between old-school manager and a little too much 'tude apprentice, etc.), Rope corrals your attention for the distance with another terrific performance by Ryan (even with her spotty attempt at a midwest accent that fades in and out like a cool FM rock station you try to keep tuned on a long road trip). Though pegged as yet another change of pace role, to me it seemed like a more traditional, slightly tougher performance filled with her usual attributes of charm, wit, and sex appeal that I feel will please her legion of fans left cold by Cut. Epps is also quite pleasing as Luther, especially in the way he convincingly goes from street corner tough to boffo punch-thrower. And yes, that is him taking all those connections, upperhand jabs, and cheap shots from his various opponents (as you'll learn more about in the bonus "making-of" in the supplements). Coming from behind to nearly steal the movie from both of them is the marvelous Charles S. Dutton (of TV's Roc) who not only delivers a great turn in front of the camera as the tough but respected trainer Jackie lures out of retirement, but also does a fine job behind the lens as the film's director. From capturing all the passion, frustrations, and triumphs his central characters achieve to the execution of first class, realistically staged ring footage, it's hard to believe Ropes marks Dutton's helming debut.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: Except for a couple of exterior scenes with bright backgrounds, we're just a percentage point from perfection in all areas. Paramount manages to put out some of the smoothest-looking transfers when all the right elements are in place and this is one of the finest they've done yet. Not as pretty as Meg of course, but definitely first runner-up.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: Sound designer Bruce Carwardine needs to put a gold star by this project on his résumé. Beautiful spaciousness to the fronts and rears (which is very kind to Michael Kamen's unobtrusive yet effective score—sadly, one of his final projects); excellent ambience to the fight scenes, too. Speaking of which, as the plotline progresses, listen to how the quieter confines of the smaller coliseums compare to the more cavernous domes—very well done.
Audio Transfer Grade: A
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, The Prince and Me, Mean Girls, Paycheck, The Perfect Score
Packaging: Keep Case
Layers Switch: 00h:33m:24s
A Ringside Seat (19m:07s) features all the principles in the movie, producer Robert W. Cort and Kallen amongst others commenting on all aspects of the production. Some of the more memorable bits: screenwriter Cheryl Edwards and Meg Ryan's incredible amount of pre-production research that took them to all kinds of boxing matches from arena settings to county fairs; Epps incredible physical shape and willingness to put his body in peril after just two weeks of training; and Dutton's commitment to realism, which made the finished product so accessible. In other words: no stunt doubles.
Although eight minutes is too brief to paint a complete portrait of her groundbreaking accomplishments, Queen of the Ring: Jackie Kallen—Then and Now (08m:43s) nevertheless is an excellent primer. In addition to offering more thoughts from many of the interviewees in Seat, we also learn of Kallen's humble beginnings firsthand in journalism and sports management ,with her background in the latter serving as the starting point for the movie. Interesting deletions from the finished product are also discussed (Kallen was a mom and wife prior to going whole hog on her dreams, a fact that's subtly hinted in the movie if you pay close attention) along with Ryan's interesting comparison of her character's struggles, which echo those of many a working actress in Tinseltown.
Along with the film's trailer, Paramount also slaps on a varied lot of coming attractions mixing currently available product, forthcoming releases (including the highly anticipated Mean Girls and a cute teaser for this fall's Spongebob Squarepants movie.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsWith the root-for qualities of Rocky, the take-control-of-your-own-destiny setup of Jerry Maguire, and the "you go girl" appeal that drove Erin Brockovich, Against the Ropes goes the distance.
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