Knockout, Russell wears the slipper well!
WHEN A director-actor combination scores a big hit movie, it’s usually impossible for them to reproduce that winning chemistry, but lightning has struck twice for director Ron Howard and star Russell Crowe. Cinderella Man is not just every bit as good as their A Beautiful Mind – it’s a more pleasing movie in almost every way and a more factual biopic.
This intimate true story manages to encompass the emotional weight of the American depression, within the life of New Jersey fighter Jimmy J Braddock (Crowe). He was a cocky young boxer who, like the rest of America, basked in the optimism and good times of the 1920s. He lived a privileged life with his loving wife, Mae (Renée Zellweger), their three kids and devoted coach/manager, Jake Gould (Paul Giamatti).
But a string of injuries, loss of confidence, momentum, boxing career and the depression left him broke, living in a basement tenement and scrounging for jobs. Surviving hand to mouth, sometimes without heat and electricity, the family hit rock bottom, until Jake shows up with an offer for a one-time match.
Determined not to let his family starve, Braddock gives it all he’s got and wins. He’s suddenly in a dizzying comeback, winning match after match, captivating and giving hope to a ravaged America along the way. His final fight is against the menacing world titleholder, Max Baer, a hulking brute of a boxer who has killed two men in the ring.
A splendidly made extravaganza, it avoids many of the genres clichés, creating edge-of-your-seat drama, vivid and gut wrenching portraits of the 30s, and gives Crowe what is sure to be one of his signature roles. You’ll be hard pressed not to cheer after his first bone crunching comeback bout, and every bloody blow brings the fear he may not make it, even though we all know the ending.
Perhaps the smartest thing the script does is to take the time to really rub our faces in the depression, evoking feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and fear that gripped America – it’s genuinely unsettling.
Howard doesn’t make the film a subtle condemnation of boxing. It is horrifically violent, but it’s not half as violent as the economic devastation we see outside the ring. It’s a heart warming saga of family values triumphing over the soul destroying havoc of America’s darkest hour, as well as a brilliantly detailed historical epic, recreating the bloody gladiatorial spectacles of the smoke filled, spit flying, claustrophobically crowded arenas of the era.
Braddock is the role Crowe was born to play and, as his performance in Gladiator proved, no contemporary actor is better at conveying an uncluttered personal integrity and nobility of spirit than Crowe. You just want to hug him, whereas Craig Bierko, Braddock’s ultimate opponent, Max Baer, is not as huggable. Every boxing movie needs a scary villain and this guy is someone you can really hate and fear.
Although Zellweger is fine as the compliant and devoted wife, it’s Giamatti as the coach that deserves kudos in the supporting role department. Howard weaves a tight script, which never falters into overt sentimentality, but solidly conveys the severity of the desperation of the times.
Cinderella Man may be, in many ways, just another boxing movie – training montage here, point of view punches there, big fight finale – but it’s one with an effectively and unabashedly emotional core.
Howard doesn’t break any new ground in the fight scenes – Raging Bull and other influences are keenly felt – he makes good use of camera focus, momentary flashbacks and the blinding white-out of ringside photographers’ flashbulbs to show the boxing almost entirely from Braddock’s psychological point of view.
It won’t ever be considered among the great boxing movies, but it does encapsulate the guts and gumption that made Braddock such an inspiration to the depression downtrodden man on the street.