Boxing is an easy sport to dislike, given the brutality at its core. It's given us some good movies, though, from "Fat City" and "Raging Bull" to the first couple of "Rocky" pictures. Unlike them, "Against the Ropes" often takes its eyes off the prizefighter, focusing on his manager - who happens to be a pert, pretty woman played by Meg Ryan with all her pert, pretty charisma. The character's name is Jackie Kallen, and she's based on a real-life figure who barged into the male-dominated boxing world and became the most successful female promoter the sport has ever known.
The story starts with Jackie at the bottom of the heap, working for a macho boxing manager who treats her and his less-promising fighters with the same degree of scorn. Offloading two unwanted burdens with a single gesture, he sets her up on her own by handing her the contract of a third-rate pugilist.
Her acquisition is even more of a loser than he appears, but through him she accidentally meets Luther Shaw, a scruffy man (Omar Epps) with a bit of boxing in his past. Setting up a gym and enlisting a retired trainer to whomp him into shape, she dreams of a glorious future for both of them. First she has to conquer her ego, though, learning that the battle-scarred athlete is more important than the cute-as-a-button manager in every arena, even when she's courted by the sports-channel and product-endorsement worlds.
Like the recent "Mona Lisa Smile," this tale could have been an effective feminist fable if it weren't so calculated. Most of the characters are one-dimensional stereotypes - the earnest newcomer, the crusty old veteran, the cigar-chewing businessman - and the climax is a championship bout that's both utterly predictable and out of key with the story as a whole. People who enjoy Ryan's charm aren't likely to enjoy the sight of men pounding each other to smithereens, and vice versa. This is a Hollywood movie, though, and the temptation to indulge every taste was evidently too strong for producers to resist.
Ryan gives a solid performance, but a safe and tidy one. It's good to see Epps in something a tad more competently made than his usual films - junk like "The Mod Squad" and "Big Trouble" - and Charles S. Dutton stands out as the trainer called in on Luther's case. He also directed the picture, from Cheryl Edwards's heavy-fisted screenplay.
You won't learn any more about prizefighting from "Against the Ropes" than you'll learn about horseracing from "Seabiscuit." Both are about gumption and "heart" rather than reality and experience, and while they give some moviegoers a feel-good glow, they're losers at being true to life.
• Rated PG-13; contains violence and foul language.