Over the decades of film history there have been many boxing flicks. After all, a good boxing story can combine action, drama and even romance. In the Parthenon of this genre such illustrious fare as Rocky, Raging Bull and the more recent Million Dollar Baby sit. Now, they have to move over to make room for another film, Cinderella Man. Part of the criteria to enter this acclaimed group is the film needs to exceed beyond a story about boxing, it has to delve into the rawest corners of human motivation. Cinderella Man is such a movie.
People of my generation grew up listening to our parents and grandparents relate their experiences during the Great Depression. In the thirties the world was in an unprecedented economic crash that left millions unable to earn enough to feed their families. One man in such a dire circumstance was Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe). The story opens just before the great crash when Braddock was at the top of his boxing game. He was able to provide nicely for his wife Mae (Renée Zellweger) and their three children Jay (Connor Price), Rosemary (Ariel Waller) and Howard (Patrick Louis). Braddock is not making millions but his success in the ring does let them live comfortably. Just as the Depression is about to set in Braddock has the misfortune of breaking his right hand. He begins to lose bout after bout resulting in the revocation of his boxing license. Injured and unable to earn money Braddock soon descends into poverty. The Braddock family moves from their own home into a cramped little apartment. Braddock literally takes food from his own mouth to feed his hungry children. He finds a menial job on the docks of Hoboken tossing heavy bags of grain, shoveling endless loads of coal. Since his right hand was injured he built up his left arm with such labor, something that would soon serve him better than he could ever imagine.
This humbled man reaches bottom when his wife ships the children off to live with more solvent relatives. Braddock cannot bear to think that his family has been split up because he can’t provide for them. He had vowed to his son that they would stay together and now even his word has been devalued. While begging for spare change Jim comes across a friend from the old days, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti). Joe offers Jim a one time chance to get back in the ring and earn a $250, a goodly sum back then. With his incredible left hook Braddock wins the bout and gains notice among promoters. Soon Braddock is at the level where he is to be pitted against the champ, Max Baer (Craig Bierko). Here was a boxer so powerful that his punches have already killed two men in the ring. Mae was relived when Jim had to give up boxing, she supported her husband but she could never bring herself to watch him ply the sweet science. Now, her worse fears are being realized, her husband, the father of her children is to face an opponent that could kill him.
Cinderella Man is not really a boxing film. While boxing is the stage for the story the main theme presented here is the indomitable human spirit. In many ways boxing is like a Hitchcock McGuffin, something vital to the people in the film but only incidental to the audience. There are some of the most realistic boxing sequences ever filmed here. Crowe was injured numerous times during production. What makes this film so good is not its punch but its heart. This is a story of the love a man has towards his wife and children. Even when they faced the most difficult times imaginable he had hope that he would once again be able to provide for them. Now it seems that most professional boxers are after the fame, glory and riches their careers can bring. Braddock sums up his motivation in one interview, that he only wanted to buy food for his family. To face Max Baer was to face death himself. Baer was a larger than life character, the unstoppable force in the ring. Braddock was the ultimate underdog, pulling himself from a failed boxing career to face the champ. Like Seabiscuit, this film shows how the American public loves to cheer on the little guy. This was especially true during the dark days of the depression. People could live vicariously through the victories of such heroes; it gave them hope that one day they too would win.
Without the strong central casting this film could easily degraded into a soap opera. Jim Braddock might have been played as a one dimensional man, a boxer who wants to return to his glory. Thankfully the producers enlisted the talents of one of the best actors in the film industry today, Russell Crowe. Like his previous biographical roles (The Insider and Beautiful Mind), Russell inhabits the skin of this man. He throws himself completely into the presentation of Jim Braddock as a real, believable human being. Most of us cannot become emotionally invested in a boxer, a man whose trade is to beat up another human being. Crowe gives us something to identify with, a man that wants to feed his family. Crowe can play everything from Roman general to humbled boxer with a quiet deep running emotion that reaches out to the audience. Renée Zellweger is perfect as the steadfast wife. The look on her face when she realizes that she must send away her own children touches the core of human emotion. She portrays Mae as a simple woman; she can find some degree of happiness just knowing her family is safe. She is tormented by having to sit by and watch the man she loves deeply fail to provide for them. Her Mae knows that what Jim has to do is dangerous but she stays with her man. Even though Paul Giamatti is now getting leading man roles his real talent is as a character actor. While many may think that this is a secondary part of the acting world Giamatti demonstrates just how important roles like this are. He is the sounding board for Braddock, the man that offers the way out to a desperate man. Giamatti has that everyman look that the audience identifies with immediately.
I have literally grown up watching Ron Howard. I can remember him as a boy slightly younger than myself on the Andy Griffith show and enter his teen years on Happy Days. Little did anyone suspect back then was that this epitome of American clean cut youth would become one of the best directors in film. Howard is a natural story teller. He can bring any tale to his audience in a way that provides a little something for everyone. There is action here, romance and determination. It is impossible to see this film and not feel better about the human condition. His sense of framing a scene is impeccable. Howard’s use of lighting sustains the emotional context created by his actors. Howard avoids every possible downside here. The emotional scenes are balanced with action, exposition is never overly long, you feel Braddock’s plight instead of being told. This is without a doubt one of a great director’s best works to date.
Universal scores a solid knockout with the DVD release of this film. The screener I received does note that some features may change for the actual release but I’m reasonably certain that most of the features presented for review will be available in the release cut. The video is presented in a defect free anamorphic 2.35:1. The color palette is reference quality with excellent contrast between dark and light scenes. The 5.1 audio fills the room. There is better than average separation between the channels. The sub woofer sounds out with every punch landed. For release there will be separate Pan & Scan, Widescreen and two disc collector’s edition. Do yourself a favor and opt for the two disc set. All set share some extras such as a commentary by Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and a second commentary by Cliff Hollingsworth, the author of the original story. The deleted scenes also have a commentary by Howard. Fight Card is a featurette that details the casting process, For the Record gives the history of boxing and The Man, The Movie, The Legend goes into the production of the film. There is also a look at the real Jim Braddock. On the two disc set there is also additional deleted scenes (also with Howard’s comments), Russell Crowe’s personal journal and actual footage of the Baer versus Braddock fight. Get this film and enjoy something uplifting with your family.