Unlike personal stories such as "Rocky" or "Raging Ball," each from the 70's, sports films now have wider meanings. In films like "Legend of Bagger Vance" and "Seabiscuit," they have been depicted with a new degree of social import, varying in their ability to transform, say, a horse race into a societal turning point.
The key decision made by the uneven director Ron Howard ("A Beautiful Mind") in "Cinderella Man" is to spend considerable time outside the ring, developing the struggles of its characters and the larger context of its story. The result is a film that sells us on a larger world than just a boxing ring.
That said, it hardly starts at a low ebb. Rather, it begins with flash and energy, as Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe) fights beneath the lights of Madison Square Garden, lives the life of a winner and finds himself madly in love with Mae (Renee Zellweger).
Now flash forward to the dark days of America's early 1930's. Braddock is now merely one in a sea of faces down at the docks, looking for work. There is no food for his wife or three kids to eat in his cramped one-room apartment. And when he returns sporting a broken hand, beaten mercilessly in the ring as his sports career slumps, his wife is at once supportive and terrified. She realizes boxing is the last thing they have left.
Desperation turns to panic when the apartment's heat is inevitably turned off, the kids are sent away and Braddock realizes his fists are his only tool to keep his family intact.
It is this careful creation of Braddock's dark days prior to his triumph, as well as the keen strategizing of his manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), that makes "Cinderella Man" captivating in a believable way.
We understand who this man is, why he's doing what he's doing and how he overcomes seemingly-insurmountable odds to leave crowds and...