Friday, September 16, 2005

Cinderella Man

"In all the history of the boxing game, you'll find no human interest story to compare with the life narrative of James J. Braddock." - Damon Runyon (1936)

Yet another boxing movie on the heels of Ali and Million Dollar Baby you might add? Yes, and agreeing with Runyon, this movie, director Ron Hward's second collaboration with Russell Crowe (the first being A Beautiful Mind), about the Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock packs a wallop like Ali and brings on some sniffles like Baby.

James Braddock is on track to take a shot at the heavyweight boxing title, living the life with his family of 3 kids, until the Great Depression sets in. Braddock too was affected after poor investment calls, and hence join the millions who are jobless and penniless. Given a second chance by Fate to re-enter the boxing arena, he finds himself back into a sport which had forgotten him, and is determined to succeed in order to sustain his family through the Depression. He isn't boxing for himself, for fame and glory, but more so to bring back the bacon for his hungry children.

I haven't seen many dramatic films set during the Great Depression, and this meshing of boxing and drama set against that background worked extremely well, with its majestic sets. Family is important to Jim, and he goes to great pains to ensure his family is able to stay together during these turbulent times. Personifying Hope, he's the working class' underdog hero, during a time when the very rich were still living it off comfortably.

The transition style used, though not new, are well executed, like the mirror cum dressing table scene from pre-Depression to Depression era, and the transition from match to match using overhead shots. The boxing action sequences are extremely well choreographed, and you'll feel every urge to get up and shadow box alongside Jim as well. Every hit in the cheeks, in the chest, smack on the kisser, at times slow down to a photographic moment, complete with old fashioned camera flashes. Unlike Million Dollar Baby's bailing of the sport to end with euthanasia, this one is boxing out and out, right until the gruelling 15 round finale with champ Max Baer.

Much is said about Russell Crowe's performance as Jim Braddock, and I'd say he deserved the praises. Ranging as the tough as nails fighter in the ring, to tender loving husband and father, his role as Jim allowed him to showcase his acting chops yet again. He has a charismatic screen presence, be it general-turned-gladiator, or schizophrenic genius, he never fails to draw the audience into his role. Renee Zellweger was cast in a safe role as Jim's dutiful wife Mae, looking after the household as Jim seeked dough, always backing and supporting her husband, yet always worrying about his injuries, or worse, death. Put both of them together, and you'll see a lovely couple who sticks with each other through good times and bad.

But the surprise scene stealer was Paul Giamatti (Sideways' Miles) as Jim's manager Joe Gould, the ever encouraging, ever opportunity seeker and chief adviser of Jim's gameplay. In one particularly moving scene, he explained the need for keeping up appearances, and staked almost everything he had to back their boxing comeback. And EPL Soccer Man Utd fans, is it just me, or does Max Baer (Craig Bierko), the heavyweight champ in the final fight, resemble Ruud Van Nistelrooy from certain angles (attitude too)?

Amongst the slew of releases this week, Cinderella Man ranks as number One on the "To-Watch" list. Some might criticise the lack of sophistication in telling a Hollywood tale, but it is precisely this familiarity which allows you to connect. Does this movie scream Oscar? Probably, but given boxing cousin Million Dollar Baby snagging most of the previous awards, Cinderella Man might be in for a tough fight to convince voters. Nonetheless, it's highly recommended.

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