Though more modest in scope than “Hoop Dreams,” “On the Ropes” attempts to do for Golden Gloves hopefuls, male and female, what the earlier fest winner did for inner-city basketball stars. Gritty, heartfelt and multilayered, thanks to superlative editing, this docu is not likely to repeat “Hoop’s” Cinderella B.O., but it should fare well in specialty situations before moving to a TV slot, where it’ll unite sports lovers and film addicts in their applause.
Helmers Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen trace the shifting fortunes of three Bedford-Stuyvesant fighters and, more intriguing, their desperate-for-glory trainer. As with “Hoop Dreams,” the central sports action is meant as metaphor for quartet’s quests outside the ring. By pic’s end, one boxer will be behind bars, one will have decided school is more important after all, and one will have come full circle and asked forgiveness of the man he betrayed.
As for Harry Keitt, the Bed-Stuy Boxing Center trainer who once sparred with Muhammad Ali, he still holds out hope for a champion who will fulfill all his missed opportunities.
Tyrene Manson, Noel Santiago and George Walton, a Tyson wannabe (right down to the gold teeth), are the trio of fighters with wildly varying talent and commitment. Former gangbanger Santiago talks a good game but lacks the heart to go the distance. As Keitt points out, his inability to stick to anything, school or boxing, will dog him through life.
Walton, a light heavyweight, won the Golden Gloves Tournament in 1996. His rise, fall (under the supervision of a shifty Vegas manager) and decision to return to the trainer who nurtured him are the stuff of more conventional sports mellers.
Manson, the most driven of the three, is robbed of her Golden Gloves dreams when arrested during a drug raid on her uncle’s home. Her case, a real heart-tugger, drew national attention two years ago. Burstein and Morgen may have opinions on Manson’s guilt or innocence, but, to their credit, they don’t mount a soapbox here.
Manson’s determination to leave the projects, her Spartan physical regimen and her tearful cry for lenience in court speak volumes.
Pic is best at treating Keitt’s complex relationship with his “family.” He’s both father figure and user, someone who genuinely cares about his boxers beyond the ring and someone who hungers for a piece of their futures. Keitt’s straightforward recounting of the day he shot his cousin seven times while in a drugged stupor establishes how far down the used-up fighter can sink. (Keitt did four years in Sing-Sing for his sins.)
“On the Ropes,” a handsome tape-to-35mm transfer, is set to a throbbing rap score by Theodore Shapiro (“Hurricane Streets”). As the title spells out, there are no cathartic, “Rocky”-like victories here, only compelling real-life stories about pummeling life on the streets to a draw.