American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
You know the Slow Clap Scene, where the key character walks into the room and it falls silent? And everybody is alert and tense and waiting to see what will happen? And then one person slowly starts to clap, and then two, three, four, and then suddenly the tension breaks and everyone is clapping, even the sourpuss hold-outs? Can we agree that this scene is an ancient cliche? We can. And yet occasionally I am amazed when it works all the same.
It works near the end of "Against the Ropes," a biopic about Jackie Kallen, who was (and is) the first female fight promoter in the all-male world of professional boxing. It works, and another cliche works, too: the Big Fight scene, right out of "Rocky" and every other boxing movie, in which the hero gets pounded silly but then somehow, after becoming inspired between rounds, comes back and is filled with skill and fury.
"Against the Ropes" meanders until it gets to the final third of its running time, and then it catches fire. Its setup story is flat and lacks authenticity, Meg Ryan is barely adequate as Jackie Kallen, and Omar Epps, as her boxer Luther Shaw, is convincing but underwritten. The film plays like a quick, shallow made-for-TV biopic, but then it relies on those ancient conventions, and they pull it through.
When we meet Kallen, she is the assistant to Cleveland's top boxing promoter. She grew up in boxing; her dad ran a gym and when she was a little girl he sometimes had to chase her out of the ring. Now she knows as much about boxing as anyone, but of course a woman isn't allowed to use that knowledge. Then, observing a fight in a ghetto drug apartment, she sees a (non-drug-related) guy waltz in and cream everyone, and she intuits that he could be a great fighter.