James J. Braddock’s comeback from the bread lines of New Jersey to becoming the heavyweight champion of the world is told in Cinderella Man. Ron Howard’s film is a character study, a boxing picture, and most of all a crowd pleaser. It’s a great piece of filmmaking and arguably Howard’s best achievement.
The film begins with Braddock (Russell Crowe) being a light heavy weight contender in the late ’20s. We soon move ahead to 1933 and he, along with the rest of the country is down on his luck. Braddock is forced to work at the docks when he’s decommissioned to fight by the boxing authority.
His wife played by Renee Zellweger is stuck at home trying to feed their three kids with what little is available. As bills mount and they go further and further in debt things appear grim. In a particularly moving scene Braddock begs money from members of the boxing commission so he can get his heat turned on.
Out of nowhere his former manager (Paul Giamantti in a fantastic performance) comes offering a one time bout against a lead contender. Braddock needs a payday and wants a send off from Madison Square Garden, so he accepts.
Amazingly he wins and is soon on a meteoric rise thru the challenger circuit until he finally meets Max Baer (Craig Bierko) on June 13th, 1935 for the heavyweight title.
Baer had killed two men in the ring and was considered an unstoppable machine. Naturally, Braddock wasn’t given much of a chance – but the film isn’t about Baer so it’s not hard to imagine what happens even if you’ve never heard of the story.
Nonetheless, the title bout works amazingly well. I swear it lasted a good half hour as we experience round by round the punishment that both men leveled against each other.
By the end of the 15th I was spent – I can only imagine how they must’ve felt 70 years ago. Honestly, the film nearly had me believing I was seeing a real bout. Way more intense than anything in Million Dollar Baby or the Rocky films.
The cast is uniformally excellent. Crowe makes a common decent guy fascinating (which is nearly impossible). Zellweger plays the dutiful wife well. Bierko has a layered take on his one dimensional villain. My stand out though is Giamantti – who should win the Oscar for his fast talking trainer/promoter.
The film is technically superior. The cinematography puts you inside the ring with ferocity. The costumes and sets are all authentic to the period. The sound of the punches in the bouts (and the cheering throngs) is extremely intense.
Don’t miss this one, it’s a real winner
4 out of 4 stars