Both heartening and formulaic, this boxing saga is buoyed by Russell Crowe's often remarkable performance. Based on the true story of James Braddock, Ron Howard's CINDERELLA MAN paints him as an inspiring, utterly sincere and admirable underdog. While Jim is surrounded by supporting types played by terrific actors -- good buddy Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine), mutteringly loyal trainer Joe Gould, hard-nosed promoter Jimmy Johnston (Bruce McGill) -- he remains the film's emotional and moral focus, always righteous and worthy, his personal crises mirroring those of his community (one scene shows the aftereffects of a riot and police violence in Central Park, where homeless folks are living in boxes and tents). When he returns to the ring and wins, he becomes a media sensation, a hero for Depression victims. He earns a shot at the heavyweight title, bumped up a weight class since his younger days and facing the arrogant and quite gigantic Max Baer (Craig Bierko), who once killed a man in the ring.
When immersed in Jim's melodrama (courtesy of Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman's hagiographic script), the movie is predictable and deliberate. But the boxing scenes are often stunning, deftly paced, beautifully shot, and eerily subjective. While slow motion lends an overt and familiar poetry to such violence, the more effective shots come faster and more aggressively (and so, perhaps worrisome for younger viewers), punctuated by crowd reactions (some almost as disturbing as the fighters' battered faces). Surprisingly imaginative, these images can be jarring enough to alleviate some of the sappy factor.