The story of James J. Braddock-Depression-era boxer, family man, dock worker, national hero-is one of the most inspiring sports stories ever put on screen. That director Ron Howard has a mixed track record at best, that yet another underdog boxing movie seems superfluous, that boxing itself hardly captures the national imagination the way it once did-these misgivings melt away quickly as Braddock's story is brought to life in a film that deserves all the praise sure to come its way and can almost be recommended without reservation.
Mr. Howard re-teams with his A Beautiful Mind star Russell Crowe for the story of boxing's Cinderella Man, so dubbed for the boxer's improbable comeback and defeat of Max Baer for the World Heavyweight Championship in 1935. Cinderella Man (rated PG-13 for intense boxing violence and some language), like all great sports movies, transcends its genre.
Mr. Howard and screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman help their audience see Braddock through the eyes of a nation groaning under the enormous weight of the Depression and searching desperately for a hero. The one blight on an otherwise great story is the screenwriters' decision to have their characters excessively use the Lord's name in vain, often for comic effect.
In the 1920s, Braddock was a promising professional boxer from New Jersey, known as "the Bulldog of Bergen." His strong right and ability to take a hit kept him competitive in fights seemingly out of his class. But Braddock was also prone to injury, and a series of breaks to that all-important right hand took him out of the ring altogether. As the Depression deepened, Braddock was, like so many others, stuck looking for day jobs on the docks to feed his family. Inability to find consistent work sinks Braddock and his family lower and lower, yet this Irish Catholic never loses his dignity or resolve.
At Braddock's most desperate moment, he's offered the chance at one last fight by his former manager, Joe (Paul Giamatti). The fight is a publicity stunt, a one-shot deal that offers Braddock simply the chance to honorably close the door on his career. But a surprise win (Braddock strengthened his formerly weak left through his work on the docks) sends him on the road to a title and a climactic fight with Baer.
Mr. Howard effectively sets the stage for Braddock's comeback on both a personal and national level. Braddock is a man who cares deeply for his family-wife Mae (the consistently surprising Renée Zellweger) and three young kids. Increasingly dire living conditions pose a constant threat to family integrity, as many kids are sent away from parents who can't afford to feed them-something Braddock promised his oldest son he would never allow.
Mr. Crowe's Braddock is a man who doesn't just function on pride, but is willing to endure acute personal humiliation to care for his wife and kids-dramatized in two poignant scenes in which Braddock seeks aid from both the government and his former boxing associates. Braddock's later fights are invested with all the passion of a man not simply fighting against an opponent but for his family. His integrity and humility are nicely contrasted with a friend named Mike (Paddy Considine), whose frustration becomes a rage that is channeled against his wife and into disastrous attempts to unionize.
Without wallowing in misery, Mr. Howard demonstrates a skill with gritty realities absent from previous films. The hope-rational or not-which down-and-out families across the nation invest in Braddock's return to the top is here much more effectively communicated than 2003's similarly themed Seabiscuit.
There are certainly elements of Cinderella Man's script that will strike audiences as too convenient for its writers. Baer, painted as a callous ladies' man and a dirty fighter, is a caricatured villain up until the title fight exposes a glimpse of humanity. It's more than likely that the details of Braddock's rise have been streamlined for maximum dramatic effect.
But Mr. Howard is working at the top of his craft, equaling, if not exceeding, his only other really great film, Apollo 13. He draws from Mr. Crowe a performance that smolders, as always, but with a force more measured, and a passion of more depth, than we've seen before.
Like his protagonist, the odds were against him-but Mr. Howard pulls off a surprising, thrilling victory with Cinderella Man.