Thus far I have enjoyed the directorial career of Ron Howard and the acting career of Russell Crowe. When the two come together, it is usually something special and both "A Beautiful Mind" and "Cinderella Man" have been superior films. Howard has excelled in making historical dramas since "Apollo 13" met with critical praise in 1995 and Crowe has enjoyed a string of solid films since his Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in the 1999 picture "The Insider." Both men are professionals and while Crowe is known for a few altercations outside the view of the camera's lense, he is one of the finest character actors this generation has known. "Cinderella Man" is an amazing example of how Crowe puts himself into the lead role in ways familiar to actors such as Robert De Niro.
"Cinderella Man" is set during the Great Depression in post World War I America. It tells the true story of former Heavyweight boxing champion James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe). Braddock was a successful boxer and businessman just prior to the Depression and enjoyed a great deal of success in the ring under the guidance of manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti). The film begins with an example of Braddock in his prime before the onset of the Depression and the comfortable life he enjoyed with his wife Mae Braddock (Renee Zellweger) and their children Jay (Connor Price), Howard (Patrick Louis) and Rose Marie (Ariel Walker). Braddock is an Irish-American boxer who is well loved by crowds and a strong contender for the light heavyweight belt.
Braddock never does get a shot at the light heavyweight title. A series of injuries revolving around a bad right hand and an ineffective left bring about his downfall in the ring. Braddock is known to be a one-handed fighter and when he loses the ability to strike with his right, he is not able to remain on top. His woes in the ring only worsen his situation in life as four years into the Depression he finds himself losing his taxi cab company and the nice home and lifestyle he was accustomed to. He and his family live in a ramshackle apartment where they can hardly afford to pay the bills and Mae must mix milk with water to extend what milk they can afford and they live almost solely on bologna and other processed meats. Braddock's struggles to find dock work and fights for next to nothing in front of rough audiences. When he breaks his wrist again, he loses his boxing license.
To make ends meet, Braddock paints his white cast black with shoe polish and eventually gets an opportunity to work on the docks. There he meets Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine), who first questions whether or not Braddock can continue to work with a bad right hand. However, Braddock does not slow him down and is as tough a worker as he was a fighter. He earns the friendship of Mike and manages to make a few dollars on the docks. When the electricity is shut off, Mae breaks a promise Braddock made to his son and sends them off to live with her family when they can no longer afford food. This sends Braddock first to sign up for public welfare and then off to Madison Square Garden where he must beg boxing promoter Jimmy Johnston (Bruce McGill), Joe and others for eighteen dollars to bring his family back.
Fortunes turn for Braddock when he is offered a fight by Joe to face the current number two contender, John "Corn" Griffin (Art Binkowski). Braddock was expected to lose quickly to the young and popular boxer as he was out of shape and a last minute replacement. Braddock stunned the world by knocking out Griffin in the third round. Joe realized that Braddock was a different boxer and now possessed something he never previously had; a strong left hand. Braddock was then given a second fight against John Henry Lewis (Troy Amos-Ross) after Joe sold everything he had to pay for Braddock to no longer work at the docks and train to fight. This was another huge upset for Braddock who had previously been defeated by Lewis. Another upset against boxer Art Lasky (Mark Simmons) set the stage for Braddock to a title match against punishing champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko) in one of the greatest boxing matches of all time.
"Cinderella Man" has gotten great praise for its depiction of Braddock, but the film has gotten strong criticism for painting a picture that heavyweight champion Max Baer was a cruel and vicious man who enjoyed having killed two men in the ring. Howard and Crowe went to great lengths to bring 1930s New York City back to life and for Crowe to embody the taller boxer. There are a lot of minute details in this film that are trademark of Howards work. For instance, during one scene a crane can be seen in the background building a skyscraper. The sets and costumes of the film are historically accurate and beautifully recreate New York City prior to and during the Great Depression. Crowe's metamorphosis is stunning as he pulls a Robert De Niro in getting physically ready for the part, although he didn't need to gain the heavy extra pounds to play a later-in-life version of Braddock.
The historical inaccuracies do portray Baer to be a terribly flamboyant and unlikeable man. This is not a true depiction and there has been argument over whether or not Baer did indeed kill a second man. Apparently, Baer would never have acted in the manner he did towards Jim and Mae Braddock during the important pre-fight scenes that set up the mood that Mae did not want Jim stepping into the ring for the heavyweight opportunity that went fifteen rounds and earned Braddock the heavyweight belt by unanimous decision. This is unfortunate, as Baer is another important figure in boxing history and while he does not have emotional power of Braddock's story of a boxer delivering American from the Depression on his own shoulders, Baer's story is still worth telling and Bierko is good in the historically false version of Baer.
Crowe is one of the finest character actors working today, but Paul Giamatti should never be overlooked as he is another highly talented actor that can cover a wide range of roles. I first saw Giamatti in the cult classic "Singles" that features my favorite band Pearl Jam. It wasn't until "Private Parts" five years later that Giamatti became a star with his wonderful performance as Kenny. Since then Giamatti has been a busy man in supporting roles with star turns in "Sideways," "Shoot ‘Em Up" and "John Adams." He is an incredibly talented actor and while "Cinderella Man" is not one of his better performances, it is yet another very strong outing for the wonderful actor.
The rest of the performers in "Cinderella Man" add value to the film. There aren't many familiar faces and Ron Howard is a director who typically does not rely on star power beyond the top handful of roles for his films. The only other major actor in the film is Renee Zellweger as Braddock's wife. I've never been a big fan of Zellweger and aside from "Jerry Maguire" and "Cold Mountain," there hasn't been too many performances from the actress that I've been fond of. With a brunette dye-job, Zellweger is passable as Mae and it is my understanding that Zellweger had strongly wanted to take this role, but I just cannot get past her as an actress and she grates on me. I'm not sure what it is about Zellweger, but I have trouble liking her performances. The young actors who portray the Braddock children are very good as are the remaining cast.
"Cinderella Man" is another stunning accomplishment for Ron Howard as he continues to be one of the best filmmakers when it comes to bringing historical figures to the big screen. He tackles topics that other filmmakers dare to touch. While I thought "The Grinch" was a terrible misstep as he tried too hard to duplicate Tim Burton's style, Howard has done nothing but entertain me with nearly every film over the past twenty years. It is still hard to believe he was Richie Cunningham on television's "Happy Days" and part of me always remembers him as such. He is one of today's best directors and has, in my opinion, surpassed Steven Spielberg. Howard doesn't make too many high end action film and keeps to pictures such as "Cinderella Man," "A Beautiful Mind" and "Frost / Nixon." This film may not have made as much in box office returns as it should, but its lack of box office success says nothing about the quality of the film.
"Cinderella Man" is one of the very rare releases from Universal that I did not review on HD-DVD. Therefore, I cannot say if this transfer is identical to the former release, but considering Universal's track record, it feels safe to assume it is the same transfer. This is a good thing as the 2.35:1 framed film looks amazing in high definition. From the very opening boxing sequences and views of 1928 New York City, this is a highly detailed film and I absolutely loved the colors of the big city and the neon of the historically recreated Madison Square Garden. The reds and blues were vibrant. Colors are all natural. The blood and sweat of the boxers comes across nicely and there isn't a bad looking sequence in the picture. My only minor complaint is that the night scene in Hooverville lost a little detail, but the darkly lit interior shots of the Braddock apartment were nicely rendered. The source print used was perfect and no complaints from the mastering. This is an excellent looking film.
The audio included for "Cinderella Man" is the typical English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that Universal has adopted for Blu-ray. I've heard through the grapevine that the studio made the decision to go with DTS-HD for Blu-ray because of the added room allotted by the format. The sound mix for this film is quite good and "Cinderella Man" makes good use of all channels throughout the film as the bustling streets of New York City come alive and the boxing sequences are engaging. Howard wanted to put the viewer into the action for the fights and achieves this nicely. The score by Thomas Newman is very warm and does add character to the film. It is contained in all six channels with the subwoofer providing a little wallop to the punches and the score. I must say that I wasn't expecting much from the audio for this film, but it far exceeded my expectations. Dialogue is crystal clear. French and Spanish support is provided via DTS 5.1 mixes and limited subtitles support is included for English SDH, Spanish and French.
The re-release of "Cinderella Man" in high definition delivers the basic same features that were found on previous releases of the film. Universal includes their bookmarking feature My Scenes and BD-Live functionality for Profile 2.0 capable players that provides access to promotional clips and trailers for other Universal releases through the BD-Live Center. The remaining features are a good collection of commentaries, making of footage and historical vignettes providing a look at the actual events and people depicted in the film. While the release doesn't use Universal's U-Control, it is a very good port of the former special edition DVD release. There are literally hours upon hours of supplemental materials contained on this 50GB Blu-ray disc and that doesn't count the seven and a half hours of audio commentary.
Three commentary tracks are included on the release. The Feature Commentary with Director Ron Howard has Opie providing an informative commentary. Howard isn't the most entertaining speaker, but he gives a good casual conversation and insight into the characters, decisions made and the reasoning for his desire to make this film. The Feature Commentary with Co-Writer Akiva Goldsman talks more about the story and this includes more historical information than Howard's commentary. Goldsman is perhaps a little too relaxed, but this is another good commentary track. Goldsman is far more prone to taking breaks and watching the film than Howard was. The third and final Feature Commentary with Co-Writer Cliff Hollingsworth is similar in tone to the Goldsman commentary, but I felt Hollingsworth was far too quiet and this is the last commentary I'd recommend. I think having the two Co-writers together would have been great.
The first menu page begins with Deleted Scenes with Commentary by Director Ron Howard (36:24). Selecting the optional commentary begins with a nice opening by Howard where he discusses the sacrifices made to deliver the film to theaters. The scenes are pulled together into one long feature. Some are extended scenes, while others were completely removed. This is a very nice set of excised materials and many cuts were solely made because of length. The Fight Card: Casting Cinderella Man (22:59) is one of the longest features I recall seeing that relates to casting decisions in the film. This does include a number of clips from the film and some making of footage along with plenty of interviews. It is quite good. For the Record: A History in Boxing (6:40) is a brief featurette with boxing consultant Angelo Dundee discussing Crowe, the film and boxing.
Ringside Seats (9:11) has a few nice bits of historical footage and shows novelist Norman Mailer talking about Braddock in a roundtable discussion of sorts with Howard and the film's writers. This is another short, but very good vignette. The footage and discussion by Mailer is worth spending ten minutes with. The Man, the Movie, The Legend: A Filmmaking Journey (14:02) is more in line with your typical EPK feature that was recorded during the same sessions of most of the other features. Howard, producer Penny Marshall and others lend their time talking about the film. Jim Braddock: The Friends & Family Behind the Legend (11:12) is another featurette that is far too short. Recorded interview segments with Braddock are included along with some interview time with surviving son Howard Braddock. I enjoyed this vignette a great deal.
The second menu page begins with Pre-Fight Preparations (25:15) that is broken into four separate chapters. It discusses the script, creating the sets, Crowe's training to get prepared for the role and the fake inflatable people that were used to provide the illusion of a crowd. I found the piece on Crowe's year of training and the segment on the thirty thousand dolls used for the film quite good. Lights, Camera, Action: The Fight from Every Angle (21:25) discusses Howard's worth to capture the essence and look of the old Braddock fights for the big screen. Russell Crowe's Personal Journey: Becoming Jim Braddock (27:51) is another feature about Crowe's hard work in transforming himself into looking as physically similar to Jim Braddock as he could. Impressive. The Braddock vs. Baer Fight Footage (32:00) is a newsreel film shown from the June 13th, 1935 fight between Braddock and Baer. This is much watch footage and my favorite supplement of the disc.
The Sound of the Bell (6:23) discusses the musical score by Thomas Newman and how it added character to the film. Howard and Newman provide the interviews for this short segment. The Cinderella Man Music Featurette (2:15) is an extremely quick vignette that is a shorter version of the previous supplement. I'm not sure why there isn't just one feature on this disc instead of two. The Human Face of the Depression (6:03) is another supplement that could have been expanded upon and finds Ron Howard talking about the Depression and why it is important for him as his parents survived the Depression. A Photo Montage (3:14) contains both making of photographs and shots from the film set to Newman's score. The unusual Kodak Cinderella Man Gallery (2:03) is a long advertisement for Kodak that includes a few black and white photos from the film as well as a number of other images.
"Cinderella Man" is the second collaboration between Ron Howard and Russell Crowe after the powerful "A Beautiful Mind." The two are among the best at what they do and when Howard and Crowe get together to tell one of history's stories, the results have been impressive. "Cinderella Man" finds Howard tackling the Depression on the shoulders of heavyweight champion James Braddock in what is a powerhouse performance by Crowe. I don't care what problems Crowe has had with hotel phones, he is an amazing actor and "Cinderella Man" is among his best performances. The new Blu-ray release of the film combines a stunning looking picture with solid sound and more supplements than you can sit through comfortably in two days. I know. I tried. While the disc may not tout next generation Profile 1.1 or Profile 2.0 supplements, this is one of the nice catalog releases on Blu-ray. When Father's Day rolls around in a few weeks, this would be a great selection to make.