pugilism: The skill, practice, and sport of fighting with the fists; boxing
Much is made out of the word above in this Ron Howard film. The word is used many times to suggest the feel and idea of boxing during the 20's and 30's. But the idea of pugilism is brought to the surface by the actual story of Cinderella Man. A boxer, and a talented one at that, is brought low by the depression and somehow fights his way back to the top, with no little amount of hardship.
This is a Howard film, thus there will be some action, some sentimentality but above all, there are a myriad of brilliant performances that inhabit the film. And when it is all said and done, this film portrays human ability to overcome odds, to take what you have and push forward...the human spirit, warts and all, that somehow finds a way to acheive that which they desire through strength of heart and mind.
The story is that of James J. Braddock, a boxer that found fame, success and some fortune during the late 20's and then again after the depression hit America as he came back against the pressures that life presented him. The film follows his journey from successful fighter to down on his luck man and then back again to victory in the ring. If you know the sport of boxing, you know this man's story. But if you don't, then this film will still find a way to bring you to the edge of your seat, physically and emotionally, because that is the kind of life and story this man lived.
Russell Crowe plays Braddock and gives us yet another outstanding performance. The kind that you can't imagine another playing, to be frank. And that is what is quickly making Crowe the most outstanding lead actor of his day. When I last reviewed a Crowe film, I said,
He has yet to fail in his work in major films, and I do not see that he could take a downward turn at any time soon. He is a master at his craft thus far and I look forward to many more portrayals of both this character and several others.
I have yet to be disappointed in that sentiment. In this film he shows the sure range of emotions that Braddock must have felt both during the years of hardship that found him during the depression and those many emotions, from the surface all the way down to the inate, that he must have felt in the ring. Crowe is able to show both the strength of the man, yet also allow us a glimpse into the sorrow and pain that must have been a part of this character's life. I see a nomination in his future.
Renee Zellweger plays his wife. And I have to say, folks - this may be her best performance yet. She has so many films of worth under her belt, yet this one shows that she can play character...and well. There are times I thought she might go the Talia Shire route, but when it came time for the action of the scene, she impressed, giving a unique and emotional person to care for and feel along with. If anything, I thought she looked the part here more than she has in any film of hers to date.
And then of course there is Paul Giamatti. I've loved this man since he was Pig Voment. And he has yet to disappoint. He shows that last year's snub for Sideways bothers him none and presents a supporting character that is every bit what that phrase might entail. Without his character in the film, one wonders if Braddock might have reached the heights that he attained. There are too many specific moments in the film to single just one out, but just watch him as he pushes and coaches this fighter in the ring. Mickey would be proud.
And that brings me to the action sequences in the ring. To my mind, there are two films that must be discussed when talking boxing films - Rocky and Raging Bull. Ron Howard and his DP, Salvatore Totino, give and present as much as either of those films. At times, some shots may even surpass. If anything, the quality of the fight scenes brings the same amount of tension and realism as either of the earlier films, and is helped by the superior soundtrack and sound effects editing, not to mention the various shots of Crowe/Braddock as he prepares for another descent into the mix. Not knowing the outcome only heightens this effect.
So mixing that look and sound with the very period costumes and a full slate of very gifted character actors (the great Bruce McGill and the assured Clint Howard appearance among them), once added to the outstanding work by our main cast makes this film succeed to be sure. You are brought back to a time and place, made to feel the hardships, and then pulled from that malaise and brought to an emotional height, very much like Seabiscuit. Both films involve a time that people needed uplifting, and both stories do just that.
Which brings me to why I loved the film so much. It does just that. Our times are very different from depression era America. But there are plenty of occasions when we could use the lift that a story like this gives us. And it is never harmful to remind man that he can overcome if he so chooses. This film is inspiring in that way, and makes you leave it with a warmer heart than you might have had when you sat down to watch it. It's real, it is emotional, it has pain and agony, and it brings you to a place that you cannot help but smile, and perhaps be inspired. It begins a bit slowly but picks up quickly. And once you are enthralled with the characters, you will not be able to put it down. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Thus far, it is among the finest films I have yet seen this year, outdone by perhaps only Downfall, Millions and March of the Penguins. And that is cutting it close, folks. Go rent this film. It is likely one of the few that you may have seen come awards time. And it will surely garner it's fair share. That is all.