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Film review: 'On the Ropes'

27 September 1999 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

Employing minimal commentary and not shadowing their subjects too closely, documentarians Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen won't win any judges' decisions for innovation with "On the Ropes", but the limited WinStar Cinema release about a real-life trio of amateur boxers and a dedicated trainer in contemporary Brooklyn is absorbing cinema and reminds one of both "Hoop Dreams" (though it's quite a bit shorter) and John Huston's masterful 1972 feature "Fat City".

The Bed-Stuy Boxing Center is renowned for producing such stars of the sport as Riddick Bowe and Mark Breland, but "On the Ropes" is not a profile of the venerable neighborhood gym. The focus is on the people behind the punches, starting with trainer Harry Keitt, who is only a little more than a decade older than the tough, troubled young fighters he coaches, advises, scolds and tries to mold into the kind of champion he never could be.

Inspired by her own six-month stint with one-time prison inmate Keitt, tyro filmmaker Burstein and co-director/cinematographer Morgen ("Ollie's Army") chose three worthy subjects in promising slugger Tyrene Manson, talented welterweight Noel Santiago and headed-for-the-pros George Walton. But as with "Hoop Dreams", their stories go off in unexpected directions and explore areas of modern experience from which more privileged viewers -- perhaps less desperately motivated and far removed from the big city -- can certainly learn something.

Through the course of the film, divorcee Manson prepares for the 1997 Golden Gloves competition at Madison Square Garden, but her dicey home situation -- she has legal custody of two young cousins and lives with her crack-addicted and AIDS-afflicted uncle -- leads to a serious, very discouraging arrest and conviction for possessing drugs.

Her dreams derailed, Manson's struggle is the most dramatic of the three. Santiago appears to have licked his own drug demons. He lives peaceably with his once out-of-control mother but lacks discipline and the confidence of a winner. Walton, on the other hand, is a serious hopeful, winner of the Golden Gloves Tournament in 1996 and wooed by managers and new trainers away from Keitt, who can't help but show his disappointment and apprehension for the athlete's future.

While a feature version of the story is, not surprisingly, in the offing, there's no substitute for seeing The Real Thing. Along with the encouraging portrayal of individuals striving to achieve something extraordinary in their given circumstances, "Ropes" in fact recalls the glum cliches and stark realities of the milieu so thoroughly portrayed in the movies, including the recent English film "My Name Is Joe". But here the faces and fights are real, the voices and lines not rehearsed.

ON THE ROPES

WinStar Cinema

Director-producers: Nanette Burstein, Brett Morgen

Executive producers: Jennifer Fox, Jonathan Cohen

Cinematographer: Brett Morgen

Editors: Nancy Baker, Nanette Burstein

Music: Theodore Shapiro

Color/stereo

Running time -- 94 minutes

No MPAA rating

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1 item from 1999


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