Boxing flick KOs resistance to cheeseRon Howard makes very good triumph movies, the kind whose endings feature standing ovations at unlikely victories. Enjoying them requires a certain suspension of reason ―if you don’t buy the shtick, all you’re left with is boredom. But it’s films like “Cinderella Man” that make me want to buy into them.
In the late 1920s, James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) is a rising star in the boxing world. His manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), thinks he might even have a shot at the championship. But, just as the world economy is about to take a nosedive, Braddock’s career also careens off a cliff. Soon he’s all washed up, with a broken hand to boot.
But Braddock gets another shot six years later, and the rest of the film depicts his miraculous recovery, leading up to a climactic match against the champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko). Baer has supposedly killed two men in the ring, and the enormous Bierko plays him with genuinely frightening menace.
As in all sports movies, though, this is only half the story. The other half is Braddock’s life with his family: his wife Mae (Renee Zellweger) and his three children (Connor Price, Ariel Waller and Patrick Louis). Zellweger plays a very believable partner to Crowe, unhappy with his profession but unable to convince him to leave it. And though the consistency of his period accent sometimes leaves a bit to be desired, Crowe brings off his scenes outside the ring with the same dogged passion he shows as a fighter.
It is in these scenes of real life ― when Braddock is waiting at the docks hoping to be picked for work or wandering through New York’s notorious Hooverville or applying for emergency government aid ― that director Howard seems to be in his home territory. The locales in the family’s neighborhood, from the barbershop to the local bar to the church, look like textbook photographs come to vivid life, and the personalities that populate them simultaneously communicate the desperation of the era and the resilience of human hope.
Beyond the atmosphere of the Great Depression, however, the film reportedly has accuracy problems. Max Baer was apparently not an unfeeling animal as he is portrayed, but rather a gentleman who was deeply affected by the death in the ring of one (not two) of his opponents, and sent some of the purses from his fights to the deceased boxer’s family. It is strange that a reputed accuracy freak like Howard would seemingly go out of his way to demonize a character based on a real man, though it admittedly makes for a more exciting film.
I have never been a great fan of boxing, since it always struck me as a competition in brutality. After all, the ultimate goal is to see who can pummel the other into submission ― and many boxers end their careers disabled or dead. So in the opening boxing scenes I was already wincing. But the depiction of Braddock’s family life and desperate financial circumstances, despite being as unoriginal as poverty, put me squarely in his corner. By the climactic match, though I was still wincing, I also found myself tensely cheering Braddock on, unable to look away. And that’s what makes a good triumph movie.
Drama / English
by Ben Applegate