MAYBE IT'S the claustrophobic intensity of the ring. Or possibly it's the way a boxer has to pummel his (or her) way to glory in 12 puffy-eyed rounds. Maybe it's the lore of the musty dressing room, the prizefighter with down-turned head, and the hard-bitten trainer. Whatever the reasons, boxing lends itself spectacularly to watchable, touching movies, from John Garfield's 1947 "Body and Soul" to last year's "Million Dollar Baby."
"Cinderella Man" doesn't sit on the ropes, though. It re-earns glory in its own right. Ron Howard's fable about Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock (played by Russell Crowe) is a powerful piece of Americana, about a come-from-behind winner who makes a perfect metaphor for America's down-but-not-out spirit of the times.
Yes, in a sense, "Cinderella" is "Seabiscuit" in boxing gloves. But there's more to it than that: a Runyonesque glow. And Crowe's burly poignancy hits you foursquare in the ribs -- right above the ticker. This feels old-fashioned, pure and meat-and-potatoes simple. It's an Irish stew movie.
Jim J. Braddock, a light heavyweight fighter, boxes so his family can eat. It's that clear to him. His wife Mae (Renee Zellweger) can't stand watching him fight, but she knows the money puts food on the table for her and the three children. So when Jim breaks his right hand in a fight, taking time to heal is not an option.
Not surprisingly, he loses his next bout and begins a downward slide. Before long, the Depression really hits and he's forced to scrounge work as a longshoreman, jostling with other hungry, desperate souls for a day's gig. Loading freight isn't easy with a broken hand, especially with a foreman keeping watch for slackers. But thanks to support from newfound workmate Mike (Paddy Considine), Jim manages to get by. But it's not enough. Jim faces the shame of having his children sent to relatives because there's no electricity in the house.
Jim has virtually no choice when his former manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), offers $250 for a death-or-glory bout with a heavyweight who's sure to beat him. But if Jim wins, he would suddenly find himself facing off with world champ Max Baer (Craig Bierko) who doesn't just win fights, he kills people. Two fighters have already died in the ring under his vicious attacks.
Howard and scriptwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman work the story inch by human inch, making you deeply aware of Jim's agonizing progress -- not just in the ring, but in a cold, dark house with a hungry family. This is the creative team that gave you "A Beautiful Mind," and it's clear they haven't forgotten the one-two combinations to reprise that power again.
What keeps "Cinderella" from complete hokiness is Crowe's utterly believable performance. As Jim, he measures his worth in simple terms: making money for his own, keeping his word and taking punishment without flinching. This is about manhood in the oldest and finest sense. And that makes things especially affecting when Jim listens to Max Baer insult him and his wife in a public place, on the eve of the big fight. Everything Jim stands for is being insulted. But he knows the odds are against him, and also that a scuffle would bring everything tumbling down. Crowe knows how to use his physique like Spencer Tracy, Gerard Depardieu or Jean Gabin. It's there, but it's held back in favor of the more muscular sensitivity inside him. That abstract dance between his softness and power is the heartbeat of the movie, and it takes you through financial hardship, terrible times and some bloody battles with special grace.
CINDERELLA MAN (PG-13, 144 minutes) -- Contains boxing violence. Area theaters.