January 19, 2004

Against the Ropes

On the other end of the true-sports-story spectrum today, I present you with the long-delayed Meg Ryan vehicle AGAINST THE ROPES, also slated to open on February 6. Based on the real life of groundbreaking female boxing promoter Jackie Kallen, this film feels about a bogus as a three-dollar bill, which is surprising because Kallen was at my screening in the flesh peddling this movie hard. I'll grant you that a movie based on real stories doesn't have to be accurate to be interesting, but in this case, every plot twist feels manufactured and apparently they all were. For example, when the events of this film happened in reality, Kallen was married and had two kids. The woman that Ryan plays is single with no kids. There's even a conversation between her and her only boxing client, Luther Shaw (the bored-looking Omar Epps), about why she doesn't have kids. It's almost like taking a highlighter to the lies.

The set up of the movie is okay. Kallen works as a glorified secretary for an Ohio-based promoter named Larocca (Tony Shalhoub, whipping out his tough guy accent for the occasion). After one two many times being called toots and half-pint by the men in the organization, Kallen strikes out on her own and finds Shaw dealing drugs in the projects. After watching him in a street fight, she can tell he's got the stuff to make it as a professional boxer, and hires retired trainer Felix Reynolds (played by director Charles S. Dutton) to whip the thug into shape. In a flurry of activity, Shaw slowly climbs the lower rungs of the professional circuit until it becomes apparent that the only one who stands in his way in the current middle-weight champ, managed by (you guessed it) Kallen's old boss Larocca, who doesn't want to have anything to do with her or her fighter. But we know that won't stop Super-Jackie, who taunts Larocca into a chance at the title. Kallen's fame as a female promoter rises faster than her boxer's, and that doesn't sit well with Shaw, who wants Larocca to buy-out his contract. The climactic match between Shaw and the champ is a joke, plain and simple, and might be the least inspiring sports movie finale in film history. Just to show you how desperate the filmmakers were to find a suitable ending for the story, there's actually a scene where one person starts clapping in Jackie's honor, then another, then another, then the entire room full of extras, including Jackie's most hated adversaries.

I'm guessing the real arc of Kallen's life is pretty interesting in its own right, and rearranging and investing events in her life does her place in history a great injustice. The story of AGAINST THE ROPES feels like Hollywood taking advantage of someone unfamiliar with how movies get made. It was very sad to listen to Kallen justify the changes made to her life story, and I couldn't help pity this woman--who continues to make a life and career of standing up for herself--have to make excuses for selling her soul. AGAINST THE ROPES is a big misfire for Ryan, Dutton, and especially the great Jackie Kallen.

Posted by sprokopy at 10:31 PM


I wasn't even a teenager yet when coach Herb Brooks led the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team to its shocking victory over the undefeatable Russian squad, but I remember it vividly. Of course, just having watching a beautiful, by-the-number re-creation of the events leading up to that historic day in American history make it a lot easier to recall how excited everyone was at the time. I was too young to care about or remember what the world was like leading up to that day in January. The Vietnam War was still fresh and stinking in everyone's mind, Watergate, gas shortages, President Jimmy Carter's famous speech about American malaise. American morale was sinking fast. What better place to look for escape and inspiration than sports?

When I refer to MIRACLE as "by-the-number," I mean that in the best possible way. There's no pumped-up fluff here. No annoying flashback, stylistic tricks, funky camera angles, or playing fast and furious with the facts. As for as I can tell, this is pretty much a straight retelling of what happened. The truth provides its own drama, rhythm, and arc. For more tolerable than 1981's TV movie "Miracle on Ice," MIRACLE begins with Herb Brooks (nicely underplayed by Kurt Russell) applying for the job that made him famous. The Olympic committee was only interesting in not seeing the team embarrass itself, but Brooks wanted to beat the Russian more than anything. But pulling together a group of players to train for only a few months and having them beat this indestructible force that had been playing together for years seemed unlikely. The film wonderfully dissects Brooks unorthodox, sometimes brutal process of training his boys not to be the best individual players they could be, but the best team, acting with a single mind. And the transformation is astonishing and it's all on the screen. Brooks (who died shortly after principle photography on the film was finished) had a single goal in mind for most of 1979 and didn't care who he alienated, including his assistant coach, Craig Patrick (Noah Emmerich) or his wife (Patricia Clarkson, who's far too good to take such a thankless role, but boy was I glad to see her anyway).

The film's length (in this work print, about 140 minutes by my count) may discourage some, but it shouldn't. It may even shock some to learn that we don't even get to the Lake Placid games until about the 90-minute mark. It doesn't matter. The real work for this team was getting to Lake Placid, not being there. What I found most impressive about director Gavin O'Connor's (TUMBLEWEEDS) approach to MIRACLE is that he doesn't present any of the players as stand-outs until the Olympics begin. Names like team captain Mike Eruzione and goalie Jim Craig are embedded in my memory forever, but that was because of the media's need to find individual heroes amongst the team members, not because Brooks put any of them in the foreground to get all of the glory. Quite the opposite, some key players were at risk of losing their positions right up until the game. Much like Brooks approach, O'Connor has not cast too many recognizable actors in the roles of the players. Not having much research on the film as yet, I don't think I'd be going out on a limb at guessing that many of the players weren't actors at all. Another smart move by O'Connor and company was to leave the patriotism in the stands. None of the characters dwell on the sense of patriotism this game inspired at the time. It's still a factor of the film (thanks to hundreds of American flags held by fans), but it's not dwelled upon.

Not surprisingly, as good as the build up is, the payoff of MIRACLE is phenomenal. The painstaking work that went into restaging these legendary hockey games is so clear. It feels as if the semi-final game against the Russians is played back in real time, and it's a wise move to spend the time with that game, so we can see all of Brooks' plans and strategies come together. Knowing what went into preparing for that game, nothing that happens surprises us. People in my screening of this film were cheering with each goal and leaping out of their seats when the game ends. I'm not a big fan of sports films as a rule, whether they're true life stories of complete fiction; there's typically only a couple of different ways they can possibly play out. But the story of MIRACLE is so powerful and the execution of this film so strong, you can't help be get excited and feel inspired. MIRACLE is the first great movie I'm seen in 2004. It's scheduled to open February 6.

Posted by sprokopy at 10:29 PM