Cinderella Man

Year: 2005
Production Co: Imagine
Studio: Universal
Director: Ron Howard
Producer: Brian Grazer
Cast: Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko, Paddy Considine, Bruce McGill
The boxing movie; it's an institution so many Hollywood directors (as well as actors) inevitably come around to tackling.

To those cynical about the American way of life, the boxing movie looks like nothing more than an easy way of showcasing the perfect blend of serious dramatic kudos and the sort of bone crunching violence Americans love in their movies without much guilt. It's an action movie that can - and does - win Oscars.

But it goes deeper. The glory and nobility sold to the world in the war movies of the last five years or so and the atypical boxing movie have a lot in common. They show the simple man with nothing but his determination and drive to come out on top. It's about endurance, not giving up, prevailing in the face of anything - that's how American audiences (and filmmakers) see themselves, and that's why they love their boxers.

And of course, watching two men beat the shit out of each other is always good box office.

We meet James Braddock (Russell Crowe - if there was every an actor more suited to punching people for a living...) as a champ on the rise in pre-Depression New York with a devoted wife (Zellweger) and three cute kids.

Fast forward to the middle of the worst of times, and the Braddocks are in trouble; their power and gas are being turned off because they can't pay their bill, Jim hangs around the docks every morning hoping for a shift along with dozens of others, and eventually he resorts to going on welfare and - in the final humiliation - approaching his old boxing club associates to ask for money with tears of shame in his eyes.

It's the final humiliation because he's already been through enough; plagued by repetitive injuries (although still never having been knocked out), Braddock's career dwindled away and finally disappeared, and his long-time manager Joe Gould (Giamatti) hasn't been around in a long time.

As such, the first half of the movie is a pretty dreary and depressing affair as Jim and his family slide further into the quagmire of poverty. He befriends fellow dock worker Mike (Considine), a union agitator bound for trouble, and even the picture perfect marriage he shares with Mae is cracking up. Trying to be an honest man who can provide for his family is proving a big ask, and for a man who was nearly a champion but isn't even supposed to compete again because of his hand it's even sadder.

Then, stepping firmly into Rocky territory, Braddock gets his (albeit second) chance, and a fight is set up with a low-ranking opponent whom Braddock - to everyone's surprise - beats.

From there, the only way is up, and Braddock, Gould and the deeply oppressed New York City around them are on the way back. His fairytale rise back through professional boxing inspires the American people and he becomes a folk hero. That Braddock finds himself again and brings hope to people who need it could be the end of the story, but every war story needs it's terrible final battle, and it comes in the form of world champion (and the appropriately nasty) Max Baer (Bierko), a savage fighter who's killed two men in the ring in his signature style.

Director Ron Howard re-teams with Russell Crowe and seems to be one of the few directors able to keep the actor under control long enough to get a good performance out of him. Like in every other role he's played, Crowe has the accent, the mannerisms and the attitude spot on for the conditions or period (he's rarely played a contemporary modern hero), but there's always a shade of discomfort about him, like he's stretching himself further than he can go. He does however deserve full props for the same reason, for choosing projects that stretch him when he could have capitalised on his otherworldly Gladiator success by being a by-numbers Hollywood action man.

Howard is as always an extremely competent director but he tends to play for the lowest common emotional denominator, pushing very obtuse emotional buttons to get just the reaction out of you that he wants. At no point are we in any doubt about who each character is or how we're supposed to feel about them.

But he builds a realistic world and fills it with characters that hold us in their sway for a couple of hours; what more can we ask of a film director? Cinderella Man isn't the serious, award-worthy biopic it wants you to think it is, but it's an effective crowd pleaser.

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