In 'Cinderella Man,' actors pack a punch

I sometimes think Ron Howard must be the name of two different directors. One is the experimental Ron Howard who tries daring new approaches, with results ranging from the muddled "Edtv" to the unwatchable "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

The other is the classical Ron Howard, following Hollywood's most conventional and traditional rules. Again the payoffs vary, from the triteness of "Backdraft" to the excitement of "Apollo 13."

Overall, it's the classical Mr. Howard who usually fares best. And it's hard to imagine a movie more cemented in the mainstream than "Cinderella Man," a proudly old-fashioned picture so deftly crafted and superbly acted that you hardly notice how many clichés it contains until you're heading for the exit at the end.

Much of that superb acting is done by Russell Crowe, one of the most gifted performers in movies today.

The actor also worked with Howard in the 2001 drama "A Beautiful Mind," an imperfect picture that earned Mr. Crowe one of his three Oscar nominations. He should have won, too - as he did for "Gladiator" a year earlier - since his evocation of hero John Nash at different stages of a long, difficult life was nothing short of uncanny.

Crowe plays the title character of "Cinderella Man," the real-life prizefighter Jim Braddock, whose 1935 match with champion Max Baer helped make the travails of the Depression seem a little more bearable for ordinary folks who regarded him as one of their own.

Besides chronicling Mr. Braddock's boxing career, the movie makes it plain that the Depression hit him hard, complete with spells of unemployment, real worry over feeding and sheltering his family, and hand injuries (aggravated by hard labor as a longshoreman) that forced him away from prizefighting and the money he might have made there.

When he eventually made it back to the ring, it was far from certain that he'd ever land a bout with the heavyweight champ - much less that he'd prevail over Baer, portrayed in the film as a single-minded punching machine with a mean streak as broad as his beefy shoulders.

If this story synopsis sounds vaguely familiar, it's because "Seabiscuit" covered similar terrain two years ago, showing how a horse with heart cheered Depression-era fans by triumphing over his underdog status. While that movie also had talented stars (Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper) and a fact-based story, it was written and directed with such a heavy hand that only its gloppy sentimentality reached the finish line.

The screenplay for "Cinderella Man," by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, has its own problems with standard-issue plot formulas and hackneyed dialogue. What makes the picture soar are the rock-solid craftsmanship of Howard's filmmaking and the one-two-three punch of intelligence, creativity, and sincerity that Crowe brings to every scene he's in.

Kudos also go to the supporting cast, especially Renée Zellweger as Braddock's loyal wife (she tries understated acting for a change) and Paul Giamatti as Braddock's long-suffering manager. You'll recognize Mr. Giamatti as the star of "Sideways" last year. His brilliance is so consistent that he could be Crowe's equal before long.

To enjoy "Cinderella Man" isn't to deny that prizefighting is a brutal sport, any more than admiring "Million Dollar Baby" signaled support for euthanasia, despite some commentators' contentious claims. Howard's movie is less an ode to the boxing ring than a probing character study and a Hollywood-style history lesson in the realities of the Depression years.

It's also a fresh reminder of the part American prizefighting has played as an escape route (actual or perceived) from the oppression of working-class life during hard economic times.

In sum, the classical Ron Howard and his splendid cast have made a spellbinding movie that joins "Million Dollar Baby," as well as "Raging Bull," the first two "Rocky" pictures, and "Fat City" as one of boxing cinema's all-time heavyweight champs.

Rated PG-13; contains prizefighting violence and rough language.

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