“I get to put some more distance between my kids and the street ... and I get to say goodbye at the Garden.”
Ron Howard's depiction of boxing hero James Braddock's famous rise to glory from true underdog status is the stuff of legend, made all the more poignant and sensational because it really happened, and in an era when hope had all but deserted a nation hungry and destitute. At a time when America had suffered a knockdown due the catastrophic Wall Street Crash, heroes were very few and far between and the working classes flocked, like the Romans of old, to sporting venues in the hope of finding escape from their woes and, perhaps, the possibility of optimism. Jimmy Braddock (played by a mesmerising Russell Crowe) was a hard-toiling battler, a loving family man and a loyal husband. He embodied pride, dignity and perseverance and, with his initial successes in the ring phenomenal, the good times for him and his family seemed assured. However, one blow against a particularly awkward chin results in a broken hand for Jim and a contract with big league fight promoter Bruce McGill (Jimmy Johnston) being torn up. So, a boxer without the tools of his trade - left literally a broken man - Braddock hits rock bottom and is reduced to scrabbling desperately about for any work that he can get just to put food on the table. Chance, circumstance and fate conspire to place him back in the ring though, and an incredible comeback soon has him heralded as the Cinderella Man, his rags to riches story a fairytale come to life. All the while, his loving wife Mae (Renee Zellwegger), stands reluctantly at his side, devoted to him yet living in constant fear and dread of something terrible happening to him in the ring. And then comes that fabled shot at the title, and for one glimmering night, America's Depression was lifted and history was written.
“You are not going to make my husband into a punch-bag all over again!”
Crowe inhabits the role of Jim Braddock with his, by now, customary dedication and sturdy conviction. Pride, no matter how much of a battering it takes, is written all over his face. He slips effortlessly into the character and the period perfectly, from his speech to his deportment, from his lumpy, pugilist's face (he was born to play a brawler, wasn't he?) to the sparkle in his eyes that never wavers, despite all the grief that comes his way. Check out the way they've stuck his ears out and given him a widow's peak to complete the Braddock transformation. Crowe possesses a rugged, raw charisma that epitomises the working-Joe, the kerosene-veined grafter who literally has to fight for every break in life, yet here he looks harried as well as beefy, the confidence of Maximus, Jack Aubrey or Bud White left a long way behind and the knocks of circumstance ground deeply into his face. He details the hard life of a trained fighter who can sure-as-hell go the distance, but is still barely able to put enough meat and potatoes in his belly to keep himself standing. Without hefting the muscle of a latter-day Olympian, he displays the lean brawn of an experienced bruiser. His conditioning shows with the speed of his combinations, his movement around the ring, each flurry and blow that connects carrying the certainty of a man who has thrown a thousand more in practice sessions and is not merely mimicking the motions.
“James J. Braddock, the Cinderella Man ... who, just a year ago, was standing in the breadline.”
His dignity and resolve is invested within the character of the boxing legend without making Braddock showy, overblown or something that he wasn't. Ron Howard, too, slams on the brakes well before the hero comes close to becoming Hollywood-ised with a subdued, almost reflective style that allows events to play out with a simple, understated reality. The sentimentality that often stalls Howard's work is unfortunately in evidence here also, but the crucial factor regarding this is that such heartfelt emotion is actually in the material to begin with - which seems to be what draws him to it in the first place. Look at Apollo 13, for example, or Far And Away. Howard doesn't necessarily inject the mawkishness, he just finds what is already there and, unashamedly, allows it to come to the surface. Whether you find such moments cringe-worthy or not, these elements are specific to the core of the story, and not just ladled on for the sake of it like so much treacle. And, in Cinderella Man certainly, these qualities are vital to understanding what drives Jim Braddock on, his own personal trials just a spoke within the much larger wheel of a downtrodden society's misery. And thus, it is essential that when his challenge becomes the time-honoured fight for the underdog, it not only symbolises the hopes and aspirations of a nation on its knees, but also the indomitable spirit of man and the things he can achieve through dedication, belief and sacrifice.
“Now you break his nose ... and fill his face with blood!”
The story is a rich one, the atmosphere redolent and evocative. The visual look of the film - all earthy browns and muted, dismal tones - is thickly decorative of the era. Well, at least this is how we are normally informed the Depression-era looked. The squalor, the flat caps and hand-me-downs, the fists shoved down deep, empty pockets - it's all there. But, perhaps more accurately, it is the glint of toil and desperation in the eyes, the sense that the chance everyone once had has slipped away. All the cast carry it off with ease, but again it is Russell Crowe who fits the weather-beaten bill to perfection, actually looking like he has just stepped out of the creases of a vintage photograph. Howard takes a wrong turn, however, when he has Jim search for his off-the-rails dock-friend Mike (a very serviceable Paddy Considine) among the clapboard Central Park shantytown of Hooverville. He seems far too keen, as a director, to indulge in his own particular passion for images of the period, and whilst this emotional sideline impacts upon the foreboding sense of fatalism felt especially by Mae, it nevertheless feels like superfluous set dressing in the film at large. The most successful elements, despite perhaps coming across as slightly corny and unbelievable - and yet are completely true - see Jim handing back all the welfare payments he's received once his luck begins to change for the better, and even marching his son back to the shop to return a piece of meat he's stolen. Such morals, particularly in so dire a set of circumstances, may seem trite and a little too upstanding, yet they are essential to understanding the core ethics that Jim Braddock lived by. In the cinema of today it would have been far easier to have darkened his character slightly, made him appear less saintly, so hats off to Howard and the writers for not letting contemporary opinions get in the way.
“You beat this guy easy last time!”
“This ain't the same guy.”
But he uses other trinkets of the time just as wisely. The sad, eager faces waiting on the welfare line, the desperate clamour to be picked for the next work-shift by a foreman with the veritable power of God and above all else, the contrast between the glitz of those that still have money for entertainment and the grime of those left with no heating in the middle of a cruel winter. Howard evokes the visions we've all seen caught on old, yellowed pictures but, no matter how much he wants to transport us into that world, his success on the streets is nothing compared to his triumph in the ring. For it is here, on sweat and bloodstained canvas, that the tale of the Cinderella Man is ultimately forged. Here, where the bell is rung for Braddock's inspiring cinematic recreation.
“You don't think triple shifts or working the night scaffolds is just as likely to get a guy killed?”
The fighting is exemplary. We've seen it all before, I know, but the sheer pulverising realism of the sweet science has never been so accurately portrayed as is it here. With some marvellous techniques for getting the camera in real-close and personal, and bolstered by crackerjack editing, Howard sees to it that we not only experience the exhilaration of dishing out the medicine but that we feel the shockingly sudden pain of actually taking a beating, as well. No spectacularly daft showboating a la Rocky Balboa here, nor the highly stylised big-hitting (and missing by a mile that the fans tend to overlook) from Raging Bull - although the flashbulb bone-crack impacts are all present and correct. Look out for the split-second x-ray shots detailing the internal damage as fists blast into soft, unguarded targets. Cinderella Man presents the artistry of pugilism with unerring precision, the footwork as light as a Riverdancer, the punches as devastating as a sledgehammer. The use of real boxers as opposed to stuntmen for each of Braddock's opponents brings with it the obvious benefits of complete and utter credibility, the differing styles employed carefully modified to suit the times and the traits of each real-life fighter portrayed. Having boxed myself (although it was Tae Kwon Do that I managed to take to tournament level) I can testify that the combat depicted here is as convincing as you can get without stepping into the ring yourself. It's not fancy, it's not playing by the movie rulebook and it's not accompanied by over-the-top sound effects. This is hard, fast and calculated like an on-the-toes game of chess, with the mental and technical sides expertly woven into the power play with such finesse that you can actually see the manoeuvres and the strategy being planned, the openings being created and the weaknesses being exploited. The most remarkable thing, of course, is that it is really Russell Crowe battling away in there. Take what you want from the guy the tabloids regularly maul but, apart from Christian Bale, there isn't another actor willing to go to such lengths to literally become a character. As Maximus in Scott's Gladiator, Crowe stepped into the arena with the controlled ferocity of a tiger about to strike, but as Jimmy Braddock, his skills in the ring are matched only by an unimpeachable dignity, and a likeable vulnerability. Here, he may not be fighting for revenge, or even out of rage, but he still fights for his family and his honour, Crowe, at last, finding a real-life warrior and champion in which to shape his own, barely restrained machismo.
“I know this isn't what you wanted. But I can't win without you behind me.”
“I'm always behind you.”
Along the way, Paul Giamatti impresses as Braddock's Fight Association mentor and manager, Joey Gould, his wisecracks and ringside savvy outflanked by a love for his boy and a true sense of pride and even surprise at the sudden glorious return of The Bulldog of Bergen. The chemistry between these two is a much more solid foundation upon which the screenplay can rest than that carved out by Crowe and Zellweger, which follows a far more conventional path. Zellweger is still very good, just oddly unaffecting in the role of what amounts to a fight widow. Her line regarding whenever Jim gets hit she gets hit too is a good one though, summing up her entire loathing for the sport her husband excels at. And then there's the esteemed New York stage actor, Craig Bierko, who is magnificent as the fearsome Max Baer. Again, just like Crowe, great pains have been taken by him and the makeup department to physically and mentally transform him into the notorious World Heavyweight Champion. His ripped physique and pounding brutality in the ring offer a truly terrifying, yet never over-the-top, incarnation of the predatory fighter who had even killed two men against the ropes before Braddock stepped up to the challenge. The scene where Jimmy watches horrific footage of a boxer dying at Baer's paws is suitably chilling, and the build-up to the dreaded showdown is far more galvanising than, say, Rocky's face-off with Ivan Drago, or Clubber Lang. Their final bout is the dominating factor in the film, as exciting a finale as you could wish for. Howard doesn't skimp on it either, knowing just how much we've been geared up for it and, of course, what was invested on it back then. And it is to the credit of all involved that the gruelling battle takes in all the moves and suspense of the real historical fight. For a true gauge on just how authentic it is, this release enables you to watch the actual championship bout from 1935, too. It is, without doubt, a stunning achievement, move for move, blow for blow, a vital and exciting display of inter-personal mayhem. Check out the moment when an old injury to the ribs has Jim feigning indifference to the pain, yet when he turns to face his corner, and us, the agony is all too evident. There is so much going on during the fight that I can completely forgive all the clichéd stuff - like that training montage - that surfaces throughout the movie prior to this epic duel.
Rousing, exciting and pumping with powerhouse performances from Crowe, Giamatti and Bierko, Cinderella Man is topflight entertainment, fight fans.
Seconds out. Round One
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