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Down For The Count 

by Ray Pride


In a film without much perfection, credit must be given to the person who came up with the title. It's perfect. And that's not good. With acceptable acting, lackluster direction, and a ridiculously manipulative script, this story, based on the life of female boxing promoter Jackie Kallen -- the actual credit reads "inspired by the life of Jackie Kallen" -- is very much against the ropes: Once the word of mouth makes the rounds, it has little chance of gaining an audience.


Set in Cleveland, initially in the early '70s, where young Jackie (Skye McCole Bartusiak) is seen hanging out at a gym, totally wrapped up in watching her uncle spar a few rounds, the movie quickly jumps ahead 30 years or so. Jackie has grown up (and is now Meg Ryan) but hasn't lost any of her fascination for boxing. She now works in the game, but only at the bottom, doing the paperwork for her sleazy promoter boss Irving Abel (Joseph Cortese), regularly having to suffer the indignities of another promoter, the brash, powerful, and jerky Sam Larocca (a sneering Tony Shalhoub), the kind of guy who, when he orders, "C'mere!," you jump.


Well, most people would jump. Cocky, sure-of-herself Jackie would rather "discuss" things with the short-tempered Larocca. And one of those discussions leads to her gaining a losing boxer's contract from him. But owning the contract of Devon Green (Tory Kittles) isn't exactly going to realize her dreams of becoming a mover and a shaker in the boxing business, especially when it's revealed that Green is a drugged-out punk who doesn't have a chance of winning.


But in the middle of discovering that truth, she bumps into raw street fighter Luther Shaw (Omar Epps). First Luther beats the tar out of Green; then he's charmed into becoming Jackie's fighter.


Wait, she doesn't charm him into anything. She turns on her motor-mouth and doesn't stop haranguing him till he says yes. She sees something in him, she explains. His reply: "You're a woman, and you're white." In other words, they have a beautiful working relationship. Shortly after, the duo becomes a trio, when Jackie talks an old boxing trainer pal, Felix Reynolds (director Charles Dutton) into getting back in the game and trying to turn the street fighter into a ring fighter.


Whether the film is based on or inspired by whatever real-life events went down, there's no doubt that most things here have been fictionalized. The predictability factor is firmly in place, and scriptwriter Cheryl Edwards (who co-wrote the uninspired Save the Last Dance) must have delved deeply into a collection of boxing movie cliches before putting fingers to keyboard on this one.


The plots go like this: Her fighter is a disaster, but soon becomes brilliant, knocking out everyone in his way. Fighter, manager, and trainer become tight. The bad guy promoter blackballs the fighter from Cleveland, so they go out and win in a bunch of other cities. The media becomes aware of the fighter, but is transfixed by the white woman managing him. She becomes the star and gets caught up in the spotlight. The fighter doesn't like what's going on - "Hey, how come I'm not the star?" etc., etc.


And wouldn't you know it -- everything leads up to The Big Fight at the end. Oddly enough, for a boxing movie that's filled with fights, there's not much action shown, only quick clips of different bouts until that big one, which is well choreographed and rather brutal but not exciting enough to qualify as the corker it should have been.


Because Shalhoub generally tends to play good guys, it's refreshing to see him peg a character quite this slimy. His scenes are limited, but he's great in every one of them. The performance by Epps won't go down as one of his better ones, simply because his character is so one-dimensional. He's really not given much to do. Ryan is given plenty, but that in itself multiplies the film's problems. She spends most of her time cracking wise, shaking her head and tossing her hair. And she wears some great outfits that show off her legs and, ahem, other attributes. But -- and this is the script's fault -- she talks too much and much too fast. She makes great use of the deep and dusky part of her voice, but she keeps popping in and out of an accent that's from Cleveland by way of upstate New York.


For a film about a sport as dramatic as boxing, there's very little drama until the third act. By then, it feels tacked on, and the ending is unforgivably cloying. Guess which boxer and which manager patch things up -- just in time! If you can't guess, here's a clue: break-up, followed by smiling, hair-tossing pep talk, followed by reconciliation and happiness. This movie is old and tired. It's down for the count.





Publication date: 02/19/04

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