When is the boxer most heroic? In triumph, standing above his opponent as the lights flash and the crowd roars?

No. He's at his best on the canvas, when he decides to get up again. Getting up again: That's the essence of the heroic.

And that's what's great about the Rubin "Hurricane" Carter--so brilliantly played by Denzel Washington--in "The Hurricane" and, one presumes, the man himself. He got up. They hit him. He went down. He got up. They hit him. He went down. He got up. They . . . over and over it went, year after year after year.

Understand, these are not boxing gloves landing on Carter. Few enough did; he was that fast, and even when he took a shot, so pure was his fury that it did not faze him. In the late '50s and early '60s, he fought his way off the streets until he became a contender for the middleweight championship. But the blow that almost finished him was his arrest sometime after the night of June 16, 1966, for triple homicide, in Paterson, N.J. He was ultimately tried and convicted--on eyewitness testimony from two men under investigation themselves--and sent down the river to one of the genuine American hearts of darkness, the state penitentiary in Trenton. The blows continued to arrive over the next two decades as legal reverse followed legal reverse.

Did he do it? Not even close. His innocence was so evident it attracted supporters almost from the start, particularly as American culture fractured along political lines in the late '60s and early '70s, and celebrities came to hover in the warmth of his genuine injustice. (One pop star even got a song out of it.) A point that the film makes, however, is that the attention span of the American celebrity is about as short as a gnat's thigh. The famous make ringing speeches, get their pictures in the paper and then realize how hard a battle they faced, against an intransigent state institution that had invested its legal authority in the case. The celebs came and went; Carter stayed.

He stayed in prison so long that a book he published found its way into a used-book pile in Toronto, and there caught the attention of a young American who had been adopted by some Canadian citizens. Carter's saga so engaged and enraged him that it became first his obsession and then his guardians'. And unlike the celebs, once they committed to the case, they came and stayed.

It may be some streak of Canadian chauvinism that impels director Norman Jewison to celebrate his countrymen's grit as opposed to the chronic American attention deficit and as well to underplay significant contributions made by Carter's native-born legal team; it may just be a necessity imposed by the unruly materials. Reality is rarely tidy enough for a feature film. Whatever, by streamlining the characters and some of the facts, the movie really picks up steam when the oddly constructed family--two men and a woman (John Hannah, Liev Schreiber and Deborah Kara Unger) and their ward (Vicellous Reon Shannon)--move to Jersey and get on the case. Theirs is another species of heroism, usually unobserved by the movies: the heroics of hard work, of settling in at the micro-level and going through the files, conducting the interviews, constructing the time lines--that's what they have the right stuff to do.

At the same time, the film doesn't overly sentimentalize Carter or turn him into a lugubrious exercise in sentimentality like "The Green Mile," with Carter as a noble John Coffey figure. Both Jewison and Washington understand that Carter was a hard man in a hard game. An ex-paratrooper with a prison record and a tinderbox temper, he committed to a warrior's emotionless lifestyle. What served him in the ring--fury, isolation, self-discipline, self-abnegation--also served him in the joint. Washington, who can be so gentle and charming as well as ebullient, plays Carter like a piece of black steel, unbending, almost cruel, so intently focused that his inner and outer lives have merged. It's a great performance, and sure Oscar bait.

But the triumph of "The Hurricane" isn't just this proud man's refusal to break. That's something, but it's not enough. More impressive is his refusal to give in to the one enemy that could have delivered the death blow: bitterness.

If ever a man had a right to surrender to anger, to let the wolves rise in his heart, to let his misfortune cripple him, to let the violence of his surroundings leech the life from him, it's Rubin Carter. What's so extraordinary is that he not only grows tougher as the ordeal progresses, he also grows better. He learns to love. He learns that not all men are evil, only the ones who put him away. When others reach across racial barriers to him, he reaches back. That's a great story.

The Hurricane (146 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence and despair.

CAPTION: Knockout: Denzel Washington pulls no punches as boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, who spent 19 years in prison for three murders he did not commit.

CAPTION: Denzel Washington is likely Oscar bait as boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.