Sneak Preview: "Against the Ropes"
Against the Ropes poster
By Lee Tistaert     Published February 12, 2004
For those who weren?t around for the first Sneak Preview column (which focused on the independent film, Made-Up), I signed up for a program where you see movies in advance, which includes a session afterwards with a guest speaker who is involved in the movie somehow. The filmmaker discusses behind-the-scenes tidbits or any topics that come up.

This week the movie was Against the Ropes, which was an evening that I was not looking forward to but hoped that the session with director/co-star Charles Dutton would make up for the likely dull moviegoing experience. To no surprise, I didn?t like the movie, and it was actually a tad bit worse than I had anticipated. It?s not necessarily a bad film (it is just very mediocre), but I had the urge to walk out on more than one occasion.

The session afterwards with Charles Dutton was not as enjoyable or as enlightening as when actor/director Tony Shalhoub and producer Lynne Adams talked about Made-Up, but Dutton?s point of view was relatively intriguing. Right from the start, he expressed that his intent was never to go for the gold and make another Raging Bull or Rocky in the boxing genre, but to make a movie that stayed as close to the facts as possible, and to make the experience enjoyable.

The screenplay has been around for twelve years, and back in the early stages of pre-production (in the early 90?s), Cher had been attached to play Jackie Kallen (the role in which Meg Ryan later filled). The concept was then shelved for many years, and the script ended up landing on Dutton?s desk, which after reading it, he said it was like receiving a gift from God. He liked the story, knew Kallen personally, understood the boxing world, and wanted to see the film get made, which pointed him in an obvious path: to try and direct it.

At the time, Meg Ryan was already attached and the project simply needed a director. Jackie Kallen was initially hesitant about a movie that focused on a time in her life, but she trusted Dutton?s directing instincts, which was what allowed the production to kick into gear. Dutton said that he and Kallen had gone to production meetings at the studio where executives were brainstorming ideas for the story. There, she mostly sat in silence, just listening, and ended up finding 75% of the ideas fabricated for Hollywood or just downright idiotic (they didn?t use those).

Dutton cast Omar Epps as the primary boxer not because of his acting range, but because he had the physical capabilities to carry out the role. And even during production, Dutton said that people would come up to Epps figuring that he was actually a boxer, with one boxing agent even trying to get him to sign a contract (Epps didn?t, but was amused).

Regarding the filmmaking end of things, Dutton never went to film school and isn?t too knowledgeable about the technical side of moviemaking. He knew the basics: where to put the camera and what he wanted from the story, which he says is all you really need to know. Being an actor, he knew how to communicate with the cast to retrieve the appropriate performances, and then simply applied his knowledge of acting on the set and let it all play out.

Dutton commented that acting is the easiest paycheck you will ever receive, while directing is the hardest paycheck you will ever receive. He said that as an actor on a set, you have the option to rest in your trailer between scene setups or hang out with the crew and have fun, while directing is much more of an intense pressure cooker and a burden both emotionally and physically. Everyone is always coming up to you with a million questions and problems that need to be solved on the spot, and that directing is like trying to wash a battleship with a Q-tip.

After Dutton mentioned that he started off acting in jail, one man in the audience asked him why he was there (with someone sitting near me quietly remarking, ?Don?t ask that??). However, Dutton was very open about this time of his life, which might have been the most interesting part of this entire evening. In his adolescence, Dutton was a troubled kid and ended up engaged in a fight that resulted in the component?s death. He revealed that many of his friends had murdered someone at some point, and that it was the nature of where he grew up. After numerous other instances placed him in the hands of police, he spent half of his first twenty-six years of life in jail.

He says that he cannot forget the night that he killed that man and sometimes wonders what that man would look like today and what kind of life he would have lived. In one angle, he said it is very sad to think about it, but that you have to realize that you don?t know what would?ve happened had the incident never taken place. Dutton came off as somewhat of a spiritual person, hinting that open-ended mysteries like this can have positive and negative consequences. Had the death deprived the man from a beautiful life, it is very sad, but had the man ventured down a bad road, the incident could have restricted morbid instances from occurring later on.

After this troubled spectrum of his life and thinking about the reality of the fight situation, Dutton wanted to start over and get the second chance at life that his fighting component didn?t get to witness. He commented that not everyone is allowed second chances, and that some events lead to tragic ends that you don?t see coming. And since he was granted with the opportunity to start anew, he was going to live out the rest of his life the best he could (the conclusion of his speech retrieved a light applause from the audience).

Having performed in plays and movies, Dutton mentioned the war that you face with critics. He specifically mentioned the string of what he called new-age reviewers who sometimes have their hearts set on bashing actors based upon pre-conceived notions. He said that some critics make very personal attacks and criticize actors with intense hatred (Gigli, anyone?). Dutton challenges such critics, daring them to say some of these things in front of your face rather than hiding in offices in front of a computer where nobody can physically witness the attack. He would respect these reviewers a lot more if they actually confronted you personally about their negative opinion.

There was a light applause when Against the Ropes ended (there was a bigger one for Made-Up) and some people did express their appreciation for the movie during the session afterwards. However, I couldn?t tell if they were all being honest or simply expressing their fondness because Dutton was there. The audience wasn?t responding a great deal throughout the film (the humor attempts weren?t getting a lot of laughter or chuckles), as the overall reception was far less convincing than the response to Made-Up. I heard one older man comment to someone that the movie was by-the-numbers but enjoyable, and a few people behind me compared it to Seabiscuit.

On the first night of this program, I was biased toward this crowd, as it is an older demographic who look like total intellectuals (most people are 50 - 70-years old), which made me fear their responses to the less sophisticated movies that would be shown (specifically Starsky & Hutch). However, with the reactions so far, I?m starting to get the feeling that these moviegoers are not too difficult to please, which I guess is a good thing in some ways.

That about wrapped it up for that evening, and unfortunately I will not be able to attend the next session on the 17th (the program is held once a week) when they are showing an independent film called Easy. On February 23, they are likely to show either Twisted or Starsky & Hutch (I will be far from thrilled if it is the first one), which is the next session I will be reporting on.
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'Against the Ropes' Articles
  • Gareth's Against the Ropes review B
    February 21, 2004    One of the most enjoyable surprises in recent memory. -- Gareth Von Kallenbach
  • Lee's Against the Ropes review C
    February 21, 2004    The story is very cliche and predictable, as its target audience doesn?t even need to see the movie to get its point. -- Lee Tistaert