Max Baer is the devil.
Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe, Master and Commander) used to be one of the premiere boxers in the country, but injuries and bad luck sapped him of his clout and like so much of the rest of the American populace, he succumbed to the stock market crash and the eventual onset of the Great Depression.
Now eking out a meager existence, Jim, along with his wife (Rene Zellweger, Cold Mountain), is desperate to provide for his family. With manual labor opportunities in short supply, Jim looks back to boxing for income, and thanks to work from his manager (Paul Giamatti) he gets another shot. And another one. And another. Can Jim complete the fairy tale arc and bring hope and inspiration to the millions of impoverished rabble?
Ron Howard. He’s helped bring about both the greatest TV show ever made (Arrested Development) and the greatest movie ever made (Willow). He also nearly tore a hole in the space-time continuum with How the Grinch Stole Christmas. With Cinderella Man, he’s hit a nice balance between formulaic sports movie and moving human drama and the result is a lengthy, but affecting film, which could have used a two-headed dragon, but that’s neither here nor there.
At its core, this is a straightforward sports movie, complete with the trappings the genre requires: the plucky underdog, the pluckless overbearing favorite, the adoring crowds that are won over by the hero’s pluckiness, the supportive family and friends who are also all about the pluck. The Depression period piece stuff adds a nice human element and the fact that Braddock is an all-around great guy who loves his wife and kids and is willing to repay his welfare money is an added bonus. The acting is solid, fronted by Crowe and Giamatti and a hard-to-recognize Craig Bierko (Bierko FTW), and Howard creates some genuinely exciting boxing sequences.
What takes the luster off the whole thing are some shifty treatments of history. Like his other based-on-true-story efforts (A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon), Ron Howard’s historical accuracy is suspect. The most egregious is the treatment of Max Baer. A quick Internet search reveals that the boxer was actually a pretty nice guy who was sick with guilt after the tragic death of one of his opponent in the ring and was a committed Jewish activist during the time of Hitler’s rise. In Cinderella Man, Max Baer is a psychopathic lunatic that may or may not eat babies.
Universal has given the film an impressive coat of HD paint for its Blu-ray upgrade, and the improvement is noticeable. The colors are much sharper and feature some thick, deep blacks, supplemented with lighter-washed-out tones (stylistically representative of the Depression). The enhanced resolution gives the boxing matches more bounce as you’ll see ever blood and sweat globule shaken free from the right hooks. You’ll also feel those hits, thanks to the aggressive DTS-HD Master Audio mix. The wealth of extras from the standard-def release make the leap: three commentary tracks from Ron Howard and the writers, featurettes on the cast, the sport of boxing, Russell Crowe’s preparation, the real Jim Braddock, the sound, a commentary by the filmmakers on the original footage from the Baer/Braddock fight, stand-alone footage from the fight, deleted scenes and a segment on the Great Depression. It’s an imposing selection, but the lack of high-def specific bonuses is disappointing.
In a unanimous decision: not guilty.