Against the Ropes
Conventional wisdom has it that Charlize Theron is a shoo-in for this year's Academy Award for Best Actress, delivering a De Niro-esque, knockout blow of a performance as murderess Aileen Wuornos in Monster. Theron is unselfish and unglamorous in her portrayal of Wuornos, devouring the role with a brutal ruthlessness that betrays her cover-girl beauty while imbuing her heinous subject with compassion that defines it as a truly remarkable feat of acting acumen.
Compare this with Meg Ryan's turn as real-life boxing promoter Jackie Kallen in Against the Ropes, and one can only advise Ryan not to dust off that mantelpiece just yet. Ryan's performance is everything Theron's is not--vain, cloying, and shallow. Taking a page from the Erin Brockovich playbook, Ryan dresses like a refuge from a Twisted Sister video, push-up bra and all, and portrays the controversial and admirable Kallen--who broke into the male-dominated world of boxing and managed James "Light's Out" Toney to the middleweight championship in the early 1990s--as a smiley-pouty go-getter who talks tough and, on occasion, furrows her brow when she really, really means business. But otherwise, it's business as usual for Ryan, who is desperately out of her element here.
Against the Ropes itself is paint-by-numbers Rocky; its major revelation is that (gasp) the boxing world is an old boys' club. As a misogynistic rival promoter named Larocca, Tony Shalhoub might as well wear a big sign around his neck declaring him "The Man." Omar Epps does what he can with Luther Shaw, a diamond-in-the-rough boxer whom Kallen discovers and molds into a contender, but as an amalgam of several real-life boxers (including Kallen properties Toney, Bronco McKart, and Thomas Hearns), the role lacks focus and vitality.
As directed by Baltimore native Charles Dutton, who showed that he has what it takes to tackle socially conscious and challenging material as the helmer for the HBO miniseries The Corner, and written by Save the Last Dance scribe Cheryl Edwards, Against the Ropes fails to connect even a few convincing jabs. And the fact that HBO (which is seriously invested in the world of boxing) is heavily featured may have something to do with feeling that Against the Ropes is pulling its punches. It coulda been a contender, instead of a bum, which is what it is, let's face it. It's a bum.