The Rocky Road for Crowe's Boxing Gladiator
To put it simply "Cinderella Man" is a very good boxing movie but it suffers from one major problem. That problem is that whilst "Cinderella Man" is based on the inspiration true story of James J. Braddock it plays like a stereotypical underdog story and feels so similar to the likes of "Rocky". The trouble is that Braddock was a boxer from before WWII and despite having a great story his name is not as well known as other legendary boxers and for that reason unless you know that "Cinderella Man" is based on a true story it can come across as just another inspiring underdog story, a nostalgic version of "Rocky".
Despite once being a contender, boxer James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe - A Beautiful Mind) has fallen on hard times. His body is bruised and battered from fighting and with the Great Depression causing everyone to struggle to cope he is finding it hard to find work to keep his family together. But then he is given a chance, one more fight as a last minute opponent on a boxing card and despite being expected to be knocked out he shocks everyone and wins. One fight leads to another and suddenly Braddock's fortunes have turned around as he is given a shot at the title, becoming an inspiration to all those who are struggling through hard times. But standing in his way is notorious brutal boxer Max Baer (Craig Bierko - The Long Kiss Goodnight) an opponent whose lethal punches have resulted in death.
As already pointed out the major issue with "Cinderella Man" is that unless you are aware of the true story of James J. Braddock the movie ends up feeling almost a cliche. We watch Braddock battle through the bad times of the Great Depression as he struggles to bring in enough money to keep his family together through to his stunning return to boxing and on to the unsuspected shot at the title going up against a notoriously brutal boxer and as the history books tells us he won against all the odds. As such watching "Cinderella Man" without the knowledge of the true story it plays like a cliche but inspiring underdog story and director Ron Howard has crafted a movie which gets us on the side of Braddock and so champion him in the brilliantly big fight climax. But without that knowledge it doesn't feel that much different to the likes of "Rocky" or any sports movie which goes the underdog route.
And to be honest it is a shame that without the knowledge "Cinderella Man" plays as just another underdog story because the actual story of James J. Braddock is pretty good. It does feel like there has been a bit of poetic licence used in creating an impressive story but on the whole Ron Howard and writer Cliff Hollingsworth have stayed close to the truth. And as such we get a fascinating look at a man who is desperate to keep his family together during hard times and at the same time the actual harshness of the times. There is a great amount of power and emotion in this personal story, the fact that Braddock worked on the docks through pain because he needed the money and when he couldn't afford to keep his family together he swallowed his pride to go cap in hand to ask for help. In fact it is just as inspiring to watch that when Braddock did start making money through boxing he returned the money he was given by the welfare state, displaying what a proud man he was.
Of course as a boxing movie "Cinderella Man" serves up those obligatory fight and training scenes and thankfully the latter is kept to a bare minimum, shying away from overly choreographed training montages. Now I would say the actual fight scenes may split audiences who are used to the beauty of boxing thanks to the "Rocky" movies because Ron Howard has gone for authenticity. Instead of heavily choreographed fights these feel right for the time as we watch two heavy men slug it out in the ring, going toe to toe rather than prancing around. It makes it feels at times messy and confusing as punch after punch is delivered but it feels right, it feels brutal and you feel the impact of every punch that thunders into a body or face. And alongside the recreation of the era director Ron Howard has served us a nostalgic visual treat through out.
Now I'm not going to lie and say this is my favourite Russell Crowe performance as I have seen others which for me are superior but that doesn't mean it's terrible. In fact Crowe delivers both the charm of a boxer who enjoys life and his family yet also the desperation as he is forced to go cap in hand to ask for money to keep his family together. And at the same time he gets that old style boxing down to a tee so we do get to feel like we are watching an old bruiser rather than a refined and skilled boxer but more importantly someone who could take a punch and land one.
Crowe for the most carries "Cinderella Man" on his shoulders because whilst Renée Zellweger tries to deliver the loving, loyal but worried wife as Mae Braddock she ends up almost too weak. It just doesn't feel like the character was real and just not strong enough to cope with the depression let alone anything else. And then there is Paul Giamatti who creates a very amusing character as Joe Gould Braddock's manager & trainer and taken on its own is a fun, quick talking character but again it almost feels out of place, a little bit too cliche to be believable.
What this all boils down to is that I do like "Cinderella Man" and think it's a really good boxing movie. But it has a problem and that is to be honest James J. Braddock may have been a well known boxer but over time his name has been forgotten by the masses so those who are unaware in the inspirational tale of his remarkable career will end up watching what is basically a classic underdog boxing movie just one which is luscious in nostalgia.
Tags: Boxing Movies