Howard, like Braddock in the late 1920s, provided glimpses of finesse with Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, also true stories. But too often his footwork has been too slow, his jabs too pedestrian to merit the appellation of Great Director. Ask anyone who sat through The Missing, How the Grinch Stole Christmas or Backdraft. There was never any reason to believe he had a masterpiece in him, something that would dash his reputation as a mild-mannered maker of mild-tasting movies.
Cinderella Man is, at last, his first great movie -- inspirational but far from hokey, moving but never saccharine. It's also gripping, despite being a fixed fight about a decent man who, in the span of nine months, goes from welfare recipient to contender against Max Baer. It exhibits a swagger heretofore absent from Howard's work. It vibrates with the kinetic energy Martin Scorsese used to bring to the office, and though only the cynic would dismiss it as Raging Bull with a happy ending, Cinderella Man does serve as that movie's heartening opposite. It will make you feel good, the function of all of Howard's films, but not before it tries to break you just a little.
It does not bode well when the movie opens with a quote from writer Damon Runyon, who provided Braddock, played in the film by Russell Crowe, with the nickname "Cinderella Man." (The half-dozen books written about the fighter, including Jeremy Schaap's new Cinderella Man: James Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History, use the phrase somewhere in their titles.) The epigraph insists that "there is no more interesting story" in all of sports than that of Braddock, which one initially reads as a warning: This is going to be a very long movie, but, seriously, it's worth it. But Howard rushes forward, wasting not a second of the movie's two and a half hours. First, he drops us in the ring on November 30, 1928, when Braddock knocked out "Tuffy" Griffiths in the second round and pocketed some $15,000. These are happy moments for Braddock. He's in line for a title fight, making good money and living in New Jersey middle-class comfort with wife Mae (a stoically understated Renée Zellweger) and their three kids. But the good times do not last long.
In a brilliantly edited sequence, a mansion crumbles into a heaping hovel and a champ takes on the look of a battered chump. The year is 1933, and Braddock is broke and broken -- a would-be champ who, in five years, lost his money, the use of his right hand, and some of his teeth. His career went the way of the country during the Depression; he's stripped of his license to fight, and his manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), is forced to abandon his friend. Braddock begs for work in the shipping yards and befriends a man (In America's Paddy Considine) who, in time, will find himself a pitiable resident of Hooverville, the squalid, outlaw homeless camp in Central Park. (The depiction of Depression-era New York and New Jersey recalls the work of John Sayles or latter-day Scorsese without the proselytizing of the former or the compulsiveness of the latter.)
Howard and writers Akiva Goldsman and Cliff Hollingsworth squeeze every drop of sweat from their story; its inevitable happy ending is hard-earned, though unfortunately it makes Baer (Craig Bierko, finally living up to his potential) too much a villain and Braddock too much a saint. Theirs is as much a movie about boxing-film clichés as Raging Bull was. But rather than sucking the fun out of the formula, the old-fashioned Howard revels in the conventions. He doesn't so much reinvent them as reinvigorate them. Who knew Opie was a contender after all?