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Review: 'Cinderella Man' a triumph

Great performances elevate comeback story

By Paul Clinton

Crowe, Giamatti
Russell Crowe and Paul Giamatti in "Cinderella Man."
Renee Zellweger
Ron Howard
Russell Crowe

(CNN) -- From "Apollo 13" to "A Beautiful Mind," Ron Howard has been drawn to stories exploring heroism, family fidelity and the strength of the human spirit.

He continues in that vein with "Cinderella Man," the Depression-era story of boxer James J. Braddock, called "The Cinderella Man." Braddock, fueled by love for his family, goes from abject poverty to achieving an impossible dream. Along the way, he becomes an unlikely folk hero.

The movie begins in 1928 when Braddock (Russell Crowe), a promising young New Jersey boxer, is making a name for himself with the help of his trusted friend and manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti). Life is good: Braddock brings in several hundred dollars with each win -- a fortune in those days -- and his family lives well.

Then Braddock suffers a badly broken right hand, and his world begins to fall apart. After a crushing defeat at the hands of light heavyweight champ Tommy Loughran, the local boxing commission revokes his license.

At the same time, America is sliding into the Great Depression. Braddock, his wife Mae (Renee Zellweger), and their three small children -- along with millions of other people -- suddenly found themselves barely able to survive.

Now "Cinderella Man" becomes a story less about boxing but about the strength of the bonds between Mae and James. Her emotional support was his anchor.

Comeback time

Braddock finds sporadic work in New York's shipyards, but is unable to provide even the bare necessities -- milk, gas or electricity -- for his family. Faced with the possibility that his children will be forced to live with relatives, he applies for relief. This delivers a greater blow to Braddock then any punch he ever received in the ring.

Then in 1934 Gould -- who's also stuck by Braddock -- begins to lay the groundwork for a great comeback. He arranges for Braddock to fight in a one-time-only match at Madison Square Garden. Old, out of shape and hungry, Braddock -- and the rest of the world -- thinks he's destined to go down. Instead, he wins, stunning everybody.

Despite Mae's pleas for him to stop, he continues to fight and continues to win. His amazing re-emergence from underdog to contender captures the hearts and minds of millions of Americans. Sportswriter Damon Runyon gives Braddock the moniker of Cinderella Man.

Finally, Braddock faces off with Max Baer (Craig Bierko) the flamboyant heavyweight champion of the world. Baer packs a literally lethal punch -- the force of his blows has killed two other boxers.

Heroic work

Cinderella Man
Braddock's wife, Mae (Renee Zellweger), is his rock during his fall and rise.

In many ways, you've seen "Cinderella Man" before. The boxing movie is a Hollywood mainstay; so is the comeback story. "Rocky" (1976) combined both to Oscar-winning glory, and just two years ago, "Seabiscuit" mined much of the same underdog territory on the horse tracks.

But Howard's keen eye for production design, his skill at exposing raw emotion and the terrific acting abilities of Crowe and Zellweger put this movie way above most films of the genre. The casting is perfect. Everyone in supporting roles gives outstanding performances, particulary Giamatti.

The boxing scenes are so realistic they're hard to watch. Using multiple cameras -- some hand-held -- Howard captures the sport in all its gory glory. Here again Crowe's dedication to his art is truly remarkable. You can almost feel his pain.

The script, by Academy Award winner Akiva Goldsman -- based on a story by newcomer Cliff Hollingsworth, who received a screenwriting credit -- is beautifully crafted. Hollingsworth had the cooperation of Braddock's two sons and the result is a glowing tribute to this forgotten hero.

Some critics may knock this film for being overly sentimental, and Howard's no novice at pulling heartstrings. But I felt the director stopped just short of falling over the edge. We needed heroes in the 1930s, and we need them today, and "Cinderella Man" is the unashamed story of a hero.

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