[Screen It]

(2005) (Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger) (PG-13)

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Drama: To keep his family together during the Great Depression, a former aspiring boxer climbs his way back into the ring and gets a shot at the heavyweight championship in this inspiring tale based on a true story.
It's 1933, America is in the depths of the Great Depression, and Jim Braddock (RUSSELL CROWE) is just one of millions who must beg for day jobs just to try to make ends meet. Once a promising professional boxer under manager Joe Gould (PAUL GIAMATTI), Jim has slipped into mediocrity, eventually causing promoter Jimmy Johnston (BRUCE MCGILL) to revoke his boxing license. Needing to support his wife Mae (RENÉE ZELLWEGER) and their three kids, Jay (CONNOR PRICE), Rosemarie (ARIEL WALLER) and Howard (PATRICK LOUIS), Jim ends up scraping for work along with the likes of Mike Wilson (PADDY CONSIDINE), a former broker who thinks the men should unionize for better pay.

A proud man, Jim is just concerned with keeping his family together, a proposition that becomes more difficult when their electricity is turned off due to overdue bills. When he's just about run out of options, Joe arrives with a temporary financial reprieve. A heavyweight bout needs a last minute contender to battle the number two boxer in the world, and it will be Jim's swan song in the sport.

Yet, he's so impressive in the ring that Johnston reinstates his license as Jim begins to win more bouts. All of which is leading toward Max Baer (CRAIG BIERKO), the heavyweight champ of the world who's so dangerous that he's already killed two opponents in the ring. As Mae worries about his safety, and he ends up becoming a symbol of hope for everyday, downtrodden Americans, Jim trains with Joe in hopes of taking on Baer and challenging him for the title.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
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.

And thanks to the combined efforts of those in front of and behind the camera, it's a thoroughly engaging and entertaining film that's the best so far of 2005. While that might seem like faint praise in a year with few real awards contenders, the film is good enough that it likely won't be forgotten come nominations time next year.

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, "Cinderella Man" will knock you out with its all-around brilliance. We highly recommend the film that rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed May 4, 2005 / Posted June 3, 2005

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