After their heyday in the 1970s and early '80s with champs such as "Raging Bull" and "Rocky," boxing movies became the epitome of old, washed up pugilists. While the stance was still there, the punches weren't as hard, the aim was often off and their predictable combinations no longer held any surprises. Sure, there were a few exceptions to the rule, but for the most part, films about such fighters -- released after those aforementioned classics -- just weren't winners anymore.
Such pictures, however, like the sport itself and its participants, are always capable of comebacks. That's what's happened recently, first with "Million Dollar Baby" and now with "Cinderella Man." An old-fashioned boxing flick, this one's based on the true story of Jim Braddock, an average Joe who battled eventual mediocrity, poverty and the Great Depression to fight his way into a championship bout against the best boxer in the world, Max Baer.
As evidenced by all of the failed efforts over the years, simply being about boxing -- with all of the inherent, built-in conflicts in and out of the ring -- doesn't mean the effort is automatically going to be a contender, let alone a winner. Thankfully for screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth (making his feature debut) and Akiva Goldsman ("I Robot," "Practical Magic"), the source material about Braddock's life and boxing career is rife with compelling material.
As the title would suggest, this is a true underdog story filled with a villain, a hero and plenty of obstacles in his way to defeating the former. While none of the thematic material is exactly novel -- and thus the story goes through the standard motions -- the particulars are different. And for those who've never heard of Braddock or his amazing feat, his return to glory and efforts in the ring -- that are no given, considering that the lead actor's character didn't survive in another movie about fighters -- will have all but the most hardened of cynics cheering for the protagonist to succeed.
That's due to the screenwriters structuring the tale to be about Braddock fighting for his family -- and symbolically for all of the downtrodden souls in the country at the time -- rather than for fame or riches. The out-of-the-ring scenes showing the character dealing with his family and trying to keep them together are some of the most heartfelt, heartbreaking and satisfying.
Of course, much of that success lies squarely with the effort of Russell Crowe ("Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," "Gladiator") in the lead role. I swear this guy could play a turnip and still deliver an award winning performance, and he certainly goes the distance with this character. By making him resolute, honorable and achingly human, Crowe creates a character you simply can't resisting rooting for. With all of that and one of the most believable performances in the ring, the actor is destined to bring home many awards for his terrific work.
Director Ron Howard -- completing the award-winning trifecta with Crowe and Goldsman from "A Beautiful Mind" -- is at the top of his game as well, expertly mixing the drama and action moments. With the brilliant work of cinematographer Salvatore Totino and editors Mike Hill and Dan Hanley, Howard ("The Missing," "Apollo 13") creates some of the best boxing footage ever captured on film. Their efforts, along with that of production designer Wynn Thomas and composer Thomas Newman are flawless in recreating Depression era America, and the collective work of all involved is nothing short of completely engaging.
Renée Zellweger ("Cold Mountain," "Chicago") is also quite good playing the worried wife and Paul Giamatti ("Sideways," "American Splendor") continues his impressive acting streak playing Braddock's manager. Meanwhile, Craig Bierko ("The Thirteenth Floor," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas") is completely believable playing the feared boxer Max Baer who had previously killed two men in the ring prior to his fight with our challenger (which thus creates some true suspense for the big bout).
While its length of 140+ minutes puts it into the heavyweight class of movies, there's nothing sluggish or flat-footed about the film. Brimming with top-notch work from all involved, the thoroughly engaging and entertaining "Cinderella Man" will knock you out with its all-around brilliance. It's one of the best of 2005.