Cinderella Man: Against Odds

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This brilliant bio-pic comes courtesy of director Ron Howard and actor Russell Crowe, the same pair who collaborated successfully on A Beautiful Mind, the Academy Award-winning Best Picture of 2002 about the life and times of troubled Princeton professor John Nash. Crowe turns in the sort of unparalleled performance we've come to expect of the perennial Oscar-nominee

Hollywood loves an Horatio Alger-style yarn that chronicles the triumphant struggle of a working-class hero over seemingly insurmountable adversity. And if ever there was an underdog with a rags-to-riches tale tailor-made for celluloid, it was James J. Braddock (1906-1974). In fact, in his case, it's more of a relief-to-royalty story.

Born in a modest Manhattan flat on West 48th St., Jim was raised with his six siblings just across the river in New Jersey by his Irish immigrant parents. After dropping out of high school to pursue a career as a boxer, he spent the Twenties in a series of odd jobs, as an errand boy, as a printer's apprentice, as a stevedore on the docks, etcetera, while working his way up the ranks of the light heavyweight division.

By 1929, after piling up an impressive record in over 40 professional bouts despite being plagued by a chronic injury to his right hand, he finally landed that elusive title fight. Yet, worse than his ensuing loss of a 15-round decision to the champion, Tommy Loughran, was the Stock Market crash, later that year, which would plunge much of the country into The Great Depression.

Wiped out financially, and with a wife and three kids to support, Jim’s chasing his dream had to take a back seat to the family's desperate struggle for survival. Soon, like many of his fellow Americans, Braddock was to find himself in dire straits, standing on soup and unemployment lines, and accepting public relief simply to subsist. However, his personal plight turned into a public spectacle and a source of shame, when his taking welfare became the subject of ridicule in the local tabloids.

Somehow summoning up a combination of grace, courage and confidence in the face of utter humiliation, Braddock persevered, choosing to train again, this time as a heavy weight. Luck was with the noble warrior the second go-round, and it is this rise from the ashes which is the subject of Cinderella Man, ostensibly based on the Jeremy Schaap best seller of the same name.

This brilliant bio-pic comes courtesy of director Ron Howard and actor Russell Crowe, the same pair who collaborated successfully on A Beautiful Mind, the Academy Award-winning Best Picture of 2002 about the life and times of troubled Princeton professor John Nash. Here, Crowe turns in the sort of unparalleled performance we've come to expect of the perennial Oscar-nominee, adopting a period Noo Yawk accent, a tough dude attitude, even undergoing a physical transformation to bear an uncanny resemblance to the title character.

Rene Zellweger is nearly as impressive as Mae, Braddock's devoted, if understandably alarmed, spouse. For all indications in this somber-toned, costume drama point to an unavoidable showdown with the formidable Max Baer (Craig Bierko), a reigning champion with fists of stone which had already pummeled two opponents to death inside the ring.

Nonetheless, since Braddock was still on the dole, he needed little encouragement from Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), his motor-mouthed manager, to sign-on for a series of increasingly ill-advised contests versus more highly-regarded opponents. Beating the odds again and again in a series of surprising upsets, he was dubbed Cinderella Man by then sportswriter Damon Runyon, who knew a fairy tale when he saw one.
Braddock's redemption day arrived on June 13, 1935 at the Madison Square Garden Bowl in Long Island City.

The question left to be answered was whether he would emerge victorious from his historic encounter with golden boy Baer, or if this would be the night when the Cinderella dream ends. Although his movie might be best described as a cross of Seabiscuit (because of the era) and Rocky (because of the sport), Howard has fashioned a fine enough film to stand on its own, even if the production falls a tad short of either of the above in terms of packing an emotional punch.

What does makes this picture unique and, thus, memorable is that it effectively paints James Braddock as a desperate man all out of options whose return to the ring was fueled more by a primal urge to provide for his family than by a narcissistic desire for notoriety. And in that capacity, he came to inspire legions of similarly-situated fans, the salt-of-the-Earth ready and willing, but hopelessly unable to find gainful employment.

Excellent (3.5 stars)
Rating: PG-13 for profanity
and intense boxing violence.
Running time: 144 minutes
Studio: Universal Pictures

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