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CINDERELLA MAN

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko, Bruce McGill, Paddy Considine
Director: Ron Howard
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 145 Minutes
Release Date: December 6, 2005

“YOU GOTTA BEAT THIS! YOU GOTTA BEAT IT FROM THE INSIDE OUT!!”

Film ****

When a single film can enthrall you in spite of the viewer pretty much knowing the outcome of the story, it’s still a strong achievement. Ron Howard made just such a film with Cinderella Man, a mesmerizing underdog tale that may just be the director’s finest work today. What it proves is that he and Russell Crowe pack a mighty punch in any film project.

Say what you want about Crowe, he is an accomplished actor who can transform into any character given to him. Just like Jeffery Wigand in The Insider and John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, his transformation into Depression-era boxer James Braddock is a remarkable piece of acting. Crowe has gone through one of the most amazing physical transformations in recent memory.

The story opens with Braddock experiencing success as a lightweight boxer in the late 20s. After a number of wins, his streak hits some severe bumps. He breaks his right hand, makes a few bad investments and his family become victim to the Great Depression. Before long, his boxing license has been stripped and the availability of work at the docks is incredibly low.

One of the amazing portions of the story shows Braddock as a committed family man. Taking care of his wife, Mae (Renee Zellweger), and three children is priority number one, no matter how bad things get. In one scene, Braddock teaches the importance of not stealing to his young son, who has just stolen some food from a store. It’s simply beautiful to see a male role model, experiencing very bad circumstances, still have the heart to teach his children right from wrong without a slight hint of anger in his bones.

In addition, the Depression-era and its brutal effects have never felt more authentic. Not since the work of Steinbeck as a single story made me feel the effect of just how bad times were in this country. I could never imagine hoping to get work by going to a dock every single day and praying that I would get selected for a wage way lower than I’m making now.

But then something unexpected happens. Braddock’s loyal former manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti, in a great supporting role that almost surpasses his great work in Sideways), comes to him with a once in a lifetime offer; a return to the ring. The prize of the fight is a mere $250, but for that kind of money, a joyous Braddock tells Gould, “I’ll fight your wife and grandmother for that.”

It’s this return to the ring that will earn Braddock the prestigious title of the “Cinderella Man”. Through a left-hook that surprises even Gould, Braddock defeats the number 2 contender, and is immediately labeled as an inspiration for the many Americans who are down on their luck as a result of the Depression. For these troubling times, Braddock is considered a true hero.

Following a string of successful fights, Braddock is tempted to challenge the current heavyweight champion, Max Baer (Craig Bierko). While it would make for an astonishing upset, it seems downright impossible. It also frightens his family to see him go up against a man who has killed two men in the ring.

There have been so many boxing films since the inception of Rocky and Raging Bull, which are still the classics. And there’s been even more films about underdog contenders climb to the top. Could a movie like Cinderella Man be just as effective at this point in time?

The answer is most certainly yes. The movie is equal in every way to Rocky. The fact that this happens to be an entirely true story helps in such qualifications.

With this film, Ron Howard continues to demonstrate his remarkable talent as a director of such large-scale productions. He stages the boxing scenes with an outstanding level of authenticity and brutality that you will definitely feel each and every punch. And the climatic fight between Braddock and Baer is a show-stopping sequence that will have you gripping the edge of your seat.

If you’re looking for a movie to move and inspire you, then Cinderella Man is the movie to see. As far as boxing movies go, it’s one of the best contenders around. Credit Russell Crowe’s dedicated physical transformation and amazing performance, along with Ron Howard’s immensely focused vision for making a most gripping cinematic experience.

Video ****

Universal’s anamorphic transfer of this wonderfully photographed film is nothing short of spectacular. The images are as sharp and clear as can be. There is not a single image flaw in sight, as both light and dark shots are rendered terrifically. The presentation, as a whole, offers endless and amazing detail. Available in both widescreen and full screen, but you’ll definitely want to stick with the first of the two.

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 mix helps in packing a little extra punch into this biographical drama. The boxing scenes are indeed the best part of the presentation, as you may be ducking the many punches thrown. Thomas Newman’s score is another highpoint. Dialogue delivery is terrifically clear as can be. This is one sound presentation that does help in capturing the authentic feel of the movie.

Features ***1/2

For this release (a 2-Disc Collector’s Edition is also available, at a higher price), Universal has come through just fine with the bonuses. Included are two commentary tracks; one with Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, the second with screenwriter Cliff Hollingsworth. Also featured are Deleted Scenes with Commentary, “The Fight Card: Casting Cinderella Man” Featurette, “The Man, The Movie, The Legend: A Filmmaking Journey” Featurette, “For the Record: A History in Boxing” Documentary”, “Ringside Seats”, which offers commentary over an actual Braddock fight, “Jim Braddock: The Friends & Family Behind the Legend” documentary, a Kodak photo gallery and DVD-ROM Features.

Summary:

It’s been a while since a single movie moved me in such an uplifting fashion the way Cinderella Man did. Russell Crowe and Ron Howard have made pure movie magic once again with this absorbing tale of a real life American sports hero. It’s a piece of grand filmmaking you simply shouldn’t miss!

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