CINDERELLA MAN is a fictionalised account of the career of James J Braddock - an American boxer who survived the Great Depression by staging a famous boxing come-back. The movie opens with a famous quote from Damon Runyan, "In all the history of the boxing game, you'll find no more human interest story to compare with the life narrative of James J Braddock." Maybe that was true at the time, but since then the world has witnessed Mohammad Ali. Comebacks get no bigger than the Rumble in the Jungle: you can find the real thing here.
But I've started all wrong. Despite all appearances, CINDERELLA MAN is not a boxing story but an archetypal story about the importance of family, love and hope. It happens to feature a boxer. The theme is that James Braddock was a decent guy who went back in for the punishment of the ring in order to save his family from starvation and the children from being parcelled out. If Braddock has to be the archetypal rough diamond hero, then his historic opponent, Max Baer, has to be a leering, crude, proud monster. His wife has to be an upright, doughty, loyal matriarch.
The problem is that archetypes make for boring, simplistic cinema. Take the perfect hero that is James Braddock and compare him to Rocky - another washed-up boxer hustling for money in hard economic times. In Rocky II we see how success corrupts Rocky. To contradict F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous quotation, Rocky's "great American life" DOES "have a second act". By contrast, Braddock, we are told at the end of Cinderalla Man, fought bravely in the Second World War. He was a simplistic hero, start to end.
The strength of the Rocky series also lies in the fact that Apollo Creed is not an evil monster (if, in later pictures, Stallone does drift into cold-war steroetypes.) By making Max Baer an evil man, director Ron Howard avoids having to address the issue of how the defeated fighter must feel. He avoids tarnishing Braddock's victory. Personally, I prefer more nuanced films, such as the wonderful South Korean drama, CRYING FIST, that challenge the audience by making us want BOTH fighters to win.
So, what's to like about CINDERELLA MAN? It is photographed with all the lavish care that one expects from a $90 million picture shot by Ron Howard ("A Beautiful Mind"). The boxing scenes are well-shot and derived from the Raging Bull school of cinema. It is filled with the kind of acting talent only double-digit millions and a sure-fire chance at an Oscar can buy: notably Russell Crowe, Renee Zellwegger and Paul Giamatti. It features a great British actor, Paddy Considine, as a radical union-leader and Braddock's best friend. Moreover, while this is undoubetdly "an uplifting family movie" it is no way near as manipulative and saccharine as it could have been given the subject matter and its director. After the travesty of NORTH COUNTRY, we must give thanks for restraint wherever we find it. Having said all this, I found this an uninvolving and over-long film, that pales into comparison with Rocky for feel-good drama, and Crying Fist for intelligent drama.
CINDERELLA MAN went on cinematic release in the US in May 2005 and in Europe in Autumn 2005. It is available on Region 2 DVD. Bizarrely, while the DVD extras includes footage of Norman Mailor, Akiva Goldsman, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer watching the famous Baer/Braddock match, the producers didn't bother actually putting the footage of the whole match on the DVD. It's a real shame, but once again goes to show that this isn't actually a boxing movie at all.