Movies

The Contender

Russell Crowe, with Ariel Waller, as Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock, who achieves redemption without committing the usual sins along the way.
Russell Crowe, with Ariel Waller, as Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock, who achieves redemption without committing the usual sins along the way. (By George Kraychyk)

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 3, 2005

In all respects save one, "Cinderella Man" is so square you could shoot pool on its head. It's straightforward, honest, inspirational, the story of a straightforward, honest, inspirational guy -- and one thought you have right away is, how come they waited so long to make it into a movie?

And, unlike the last Ron Howard-Russell Crowe collaboration, "A Beautiful Mind," it is almost entirely trick-free. There's no business of the hidden subjective camera where we think we're seeing what would be considered "reality" when in fact we're inside a diseased mind. In this one, what you see is what you get.

What you get is the professional arc de triomphe of Jim Braddock, a New Jersey heavyweight of the '30s with a big heart, a good punch and fragile hands. After breaking his right, he fell from grace with the lords of the game -- the movie represents them as stuffy cigar smokers in three-piece suits sitting in a paneled boardroom. He lost his New York license, he couldn't get fights, so he went to work as a stevedore on the Hoboken docks to support his beloved wife and three kids. It was the height of the Depression and he was soon laid off his full-time job; the family just barely scraped by on his part-time work, the dole and a lot of huddling together during cold Jersey nights in a ramshackle, powerless apartment.

Then Jim caught a break, finally. After almost a fightless year, a highly ranked boxer dropped out of a bout, and Braddock was asked to fill in; out of shape, burdened by his wife's misgivings but desperate for a payday, he gave it a shot. And won. Instead of could have been a contender, he suddenly was a contender. He won again. And won again. Suddenly, four fights into his second chance, he was fighting Max Baer for the heavyweight championship of the world.

The story goes that during his time on the docks, he'd favored his left over the broken right and in so doing, built that arm into a ferocious punching piston, which he'd lacked initially. In a funny way, his misfortune made him a better boxer than he might have ever been otherwise.

You have to give it to Howard and Crowe for not giving in to the modern tendency in biography to discover and exploit the secret lives that so many great men have (and even more of us less-great ones!). Some biographers will even invent a nice juicy secret life for craven gain, such as the fellow who argued that Errol Flynn was a Nazi spy or the other who said J. Edgar Hoover partied in ball gowns. But Howard and Crowe never stoop, and Braddock, God bless him, defies any such temptations: He seemed never to have gotten drunk, chased babes, yelled or fought outside the ring. As solid a family man as any father who knew best, he was as humble as he was heroic and as heroic as he was strong and as strong as he was noble. He was just pure ring knight with Parsifal's singleness of purpose, who found himself within a one-two combination of boxing's grail.

In less able hands, surely such virtue would grow tedious halfway into Reel 2. But Crowe manages to keep it watchable by keeping it honest: You don't feel him preening or posing, you feel no smugness or self-awareness. He gives us a good man who doesn't know how good he is and for that reason takes no pleasure in his virtue, who just is and does without much fanfare. Particularly now, when we're used to seeing jocks with the narcissism and ego of prima ballerinas, surrounded by gofers, sycophants and homeboys, to say nothing of diamonds, minks and silk lingerie -- these are the jocks I'm still talking about, not their girlfriends! -- it's an utter astonishment to see a family guy whose idea of a good time is to read bedtime stories to his kids, then sit by the fire with his wife, Mae (played well enough, though with an occasionally wavering Jersey accent, by Renee Zellweger). We're in an almost irony-free zone, where everything is exactly as it seems, and no subtexts are available for subtext-fanatics.

For example, Howard and screenwriter Cliff Hollingsworth largely avoid the temptation that the makers of that other inspirational story of a '30s jock, albeit a four-legged one, couldn't avoid: The latter made Seabiscuit a symbol for Roosevelt's New Deal, for a hope aborning which gave the unemployed millions the belief that better times lay just ahead. You thought: Is this a speedy pony or some kind of national salvation machine?

By contrast, the fighter is just a fighter, first, last and always. Crowe keeps him grounded in reality and Howard, who loves the smoky squalor of old-time boxing halls, stays away from the Lincoln Continental commercial cinematography that also bedeviled "Seabiscuit." Howard's Depression is scabby and cold, full of Hoovervilles (in Central Park, no less) and legions of damned men; Howard's casting director has a great time finding faces that could have been taken out of Walker Evans's Dust Bowl photos.

Even the boxing choreography is good, and it's so brilliantly photographed that it recalls the work that cinematographer James Wong Howe did on what is probably the best of all boxing movies, Robert Rossen's "Body and Soul," in 1947. (Howe filmed on roller skates so he could get in close and stay fluid.) There's no "Rocky"-style overamplification or any of Scorsese's stylizations from "Raging Bull." It's just the game, the thud of leather-encased fists smashing into human meat, of body punches, jabs and one-two combinations.

With all that going for it, one must ask, why didn't they just tell it completely straight?

In other words, why did they feel so compelled to create an utterly bogus Max Baer for the virtuous Jim to fight in the movie's admittedly compelling climactic, championship bout? I understand the melodramatic demands of the narrative: To show off Jim's virtue, Howard and Hollingsworth felt they had to deliver an equally outsize portrait of evil so that the lines between good and bad, right and wrong, decent and profane were made ever starker, so that the battle isn't so much between boxers as between moral systems.

But see, it was between boxers. These meanings that outsiders impose -- Schmeling as an Aryan demigod who had to be felled by the righteous Louis, Griffith as a noble gay icon destroying the bigoted Paret, Clay was seen as an uppity punk to be straightened out by Papa Liston (whose career as a mob enforcer was conveniently forgotten), Smokin' Joe putting the same uppity punk, now called Ali, in his place, then Ali, an icon of black selfhood, reclaiming the title against the same Joe -- have no reality inside the ring, where it's nothing but punch, will and pain-threshold.

"Cinderella Man" devises a whole new personality for Baer, turning him into a popeyed psycho and libertine, with two floozies on his arm or lounging in his hotel room in satins, a cretin who boasts of killing men in the ring and makes rude sexual suggestions to Mae. Craig Bierko plays the champ as a cross between Al Capone and Attila the Hun. Does he think this is his Oscar ride? Does he want to be the next Mr. T?

It's just not right. In fact, Baer was as beloved as any heavyweight in history, was seen as a friendly, clownish kind of guy, and when a fighter died after a fight with him, he was so upset he quit boxing for several months, then went 2-4 when he came back. It took an intervention by Jack Dempsey and a crash course in short punches to get him back on track. He fought one great fight -- against Schmeling -- and pretty much phoned it in from then on. As the great sportswriter Jimmy Cannon put it, "Baer was shaped to be a great pug, but his heart did not belong in that immense and thrilling body. It was a clown's heart. A heart that must have hurt by terror and fear in the years Baer was forced to pretend he was a fighter."

It's not enough to ruin the picture, but it does leave a bad taste in the mouth. Maybe, as an act of contrition, Crowe and Howard ought to collaborate on a last biopic: "Clown Man: The Max Baer Story."

Cinderella Man (144 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for athletic violence and emotional intensity.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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