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MOVIE REVIEW

Ryan's tenacity can't help `Ropes' go the distance

When we last saw Meg Ryan, she was in an erotic pickle in Jane Campion's murder mystery "In the Cut," where she did unusual things with poetry, blood, and sex. Now, in "Against the Ropes," she's wearing knee-high boots and daring the boxing world to take her seriously. Will the movie world follow suit? Ryan has made no secret of her need for actorly growth, and that has mostly resulted in falling off the comedy wagon and into the soapy climes of, say, "Proof of Life." She has a way of making adult determination seem bratty. But with "Against the Ropes" and "In the Cut," Ryan no longer seems to be mistaking a search for respect for a need to be liked (although her engorged lips on the "Today" show a few mornings back bring other worries.) In the new movie, the actress is good and tenacious as Jackie Kallen, the real-life journalist-turned-personal publicist-turned boxing manager, who took James "Lights Out" Toney to the top of the IBF.

Her Kallen wears a permanently scrunched up face, speaks in a tough, grainy Midwestern accent, and has a fashion sense that calls to mind certain unemployed dance music singers -- tight, tighter, tightest. She might be more intimidating than Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks in the hockey heart-warmer "Miracle," which is certain to play, someday, after "Against the Ropes" on ESPN Classic.

Despite Ryan's enthusiasm and the care director Charles S. Dutton provides, the movie is only sporadically interesting. Written by Cheryl Edwards, Kallen's story is pumped with artificial sweeteners, hokey inevitabilities, and denaturing oversimplifications. Kallen's home town, Detroit, is swapped for Cleveland, while her husband and kids are jettisoned, leaving her personal life in a fog of ambiguity. But Tim Daly hangs around as a local newscaster whose function is to remind us that the sometimes unladylike Jackie does like men.

One night, Jackie accepts a dare from a sexist bully (Tony Shalhoub, doing a passable Alec Baldwin) who goads her to purchase one of his boxers for a dollar. It's impossible to overlook that the movie is selling black men to white ladies at a discount; the real Kallen got her first man for free. Her new fighter also turns out to be a crackhead. But Jackie and her co-worker Renee (Kerry Washington, underused again) swing by his blighted Cleveland neighborhood just in time to see his dealer rough him up.

Jackie's purchase is a dud, but his assailant shows promise. His name's Luther Shaw (Omar Epps), and Ryan eventually exclaims something I've waited my whole life to hear her say: "He reminds me of a young Marvin Hagler!"

Soon, she bails the belligerent Luther out of jail, gets him to sign a contract, and matches him up with a skeptical trainer (Dutton). Epps captures Luther's sense of self-satisfaction without tacking on the sense of entitlement typical of most boxers. He might be the most humble undefeated middleweight the sport's ever had.

Nonetheless, boxer, trainer, and manager embark on the bumpy road to triumph. Along the way, Dutton gives a number of impassioned social speeches ("I'm trying to teach the boy how not to use his fists. What do you suggest? Handcuffs?"), and Jackie and Luther have a few tiffs over Jackie's condescending public treatment of Luther. Eventually her fighter gets national exposure, and HBO Sports shows up, driving Jackie to go self-promotional. Here, Ryan's performance gets really fascinating and almost dangerous: she comes thisclose to being Don King. But the movie is quick to punish Kallen's arrogance and then, of course, redeem her, in time for the Big Fight.As a girl, Jackie Kallen's boxer father called her a "midget with a head full of stupid." As a woman, she stares down chauvinism everyday. "Against the Ropes" presents Kallen as a woman destined to make boxing-world inroads. But we miss a sense of what drives the woman beyond the need to be a pioneer. It's too hard to see the character for the spokesperson.

("Against the Ropes": **)

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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