This is a movie about second chances. It’s the story of an Irish light heavyweight named James J. Braddock whose career unraveled around the time of the 1929 stock market crash and who went on to make one of the most unlikely comebacks in boxing history. In a sense it represents a second chance for its director, Ron Howard, as well. After all, this isn’t the first time he’s teamed up with a major box office star to tell the inspirational story of an Irish fighter. The first time was in 1992 when he and Tom Cruise combined forces for the overblown and forgettable Far and Away. That was an epic misstep for the filmmaker. This time he gets it right.
Cinderella Man also provided Howard with a second chance to work with Oscar winner Russell Crowe and, just as they did in A Beautiful Mind, the two prove a potent combination. The actor creates a compelling portrait of the athlete whose downfall lands him at the bottom just as the Great Depression tightens its grip on working class America. With a wife (Renee Zellweger) and three young children to look after, the once-promising pugilist is reduced to doing menial work on a loading dock outside New York City.
Zellweger, it must be said, is not the picture’s greatest strength. There are points where her chin up kewpie doll bit threatens to topple the movie’s tone into musty melodrama. Too often, with food and wood for the kitchen stove in desperately short supply, she brings to mind a past-her-prime Shirley Temple wringing her hands in some heart-tugger adapted from Dickens. She could be a pouty Mrs. Cratchit.
Fortunately, Crowe’s performance more than compensates. His Braddock is a winning mix of hard luck pluck, domestic tenderness, cheek, bravado and determination. Where sports figures in movies traditionally are motivated by dreams of glory, Braddock dreams of getting back into the ring simply to put food on the table, to prevent his family from being split apart, his kids sent to live with relatives who can better afford to care for them as often happened during that time. When he does get his chance, a real life miracle begins to unfold and it’s moving to watch as much for the fact that he’s fighting to keep his family together as for the against-all-odds drama of his fairy tale return.
Paul Giamatti, fresh from his highly praised turn in Sideways, turns up as Joe Gould, the fighter’s manager. He’s a smart aleck, naturally, but there’s more to this performance than laughs. As a man who remains in his friend’s corner through good times and bad, he brings a nobility to the role I’m not sure we’ve seen from the actor before.
This is a boxing movie so there’s the matter of the matches, of course. I don’t know about you but, when I think of visceral screen violence, I think of the names Peckinpah, Scorsese and Tarantino before I think of Opie. All the same, the ring sequences are rousing, realistic, first rate fun and far more evocative of Raging Bull’s than Rocky’s in terms of the artistry with which they are shot.
The picture is wall to wall with colorful characters-Bruce McGill’s, Paddy Considine’s and David Huband’s among them-but Craig Bierko stands out in the role of legendary mauler Max Baer. The champ, we learn, has killed two men in the ring. Bierko plays him as part caveman, part celebrity playboy and more than a few of the movie’s most electric moments come courtesy of his mesmerizing performance. Baer stands between Braddock and boxing immortality and getting past him appears perhaps the most impossible part of the Irishman’s impossible dream.
Cinderella Man is about as revolutionary a work of cinema as Seabiscuit. Let’s face it: we’ve been here before. Every element of the film-from its production design to its score-will remind you of a dozen other movies. It all could have wound up horribly, embarrassingly cornball. But somehow it didn’t.
It wound up working. That’s because it is an amazing story brought to life by gifted people and it will make you feel good without making you feel guilty for doing so. Who doesn’t like to see the underdog make it every once in a while? In a summer set for domination by Lucas and Spielberg, Howard, himself, could prove an unexpectedly strong contender.