It may not bring anything new to the table of sports films, but there's no denying that Ron Howard's Cinderella Man (2005) is a well-crafted drama that plays its cards well. Based upon the career of Depression-era boxer James J. Braddock (1905-1974), Howard's film also focuses on the once-proud fighter's darkest years with his family in the slums of New Jersey. Braddock (portrayed skillfully by Russell Crowe) earned thousands per purse in his prime, but the Great Depression reduced him to an injured fighter who struggled to pay the electric bill.
They call it "Cinderella" for a reason, though, as the standard rags-to-riches story makes almost two complete cycles during the film's weighty runtime of 145 minutes. We see a spectacular fighter near the top of his career one minute, while we're immediately whisked away to his meager living conditions shortly thereafter. A broken right hand and a series of lackluster matches gets Braddock decommissioned from the boxing world, forcing him to battle eager crowds for long shifts at the dock at a minimal wage. Eventually, Braddock's former manager (the ever-dependable Paul Giamatti) gets him back in the ring for one farewell bout---the bad news is, it's a gimmick match (pitting a high-ranking contender against our "retired" hero, who'd never been knocked out), so Braddock would essentially get pulverized for a quick payday. To make matters worse, Braddock's wife (played by Renee Zellweger) has her own set of problems: she doesn't want to see the kids starve, but she doesn't want to see their father risk more injury. It's nice to see such attention paid to Braddock himself, but it's even more satisfying when the family he's fighting for gets a bit of face time as well.
As fate would have it, Braddock ended up winning the match with energy to spare. Though he'd been left for dead in the boxing world, his incredible comeback story started with a "farewell match" and didn't stop there. The final bout---between Braddock and champion Max Baer, a brutal fighter who'd already killed two men in the ring---is sharp and exciting, helping to punctuate the film's deliberate pacing. While Cinderella Man is easy to predict for those familiar with boxing history---and, let's face it, fairly predictable for everyone else, too---that certainly doesn't mean it's not entertaining. It does, however, prevent Cinderella Man from being more than 'very good': after all, one can only see so many stories about "the incredible strength of the human spirit" before everything starts to wear a little thin.
Even so, let's take a look at what Cinderella Man does right, especially since it's a winner in nearly every other department. From the strong acting performances (highlighted by Crowe and Giamatti, though there aren't any bad supporting roles in the bunch) to the film's detailed set design, atmosphere and excellent score, it's a labor of love that should have done better at the box office than it actually did. Often times, the film's best examples of attention to detail don't really call attention to themselves---including Braddock's fighting style and mannerisms, captured very well by Crowe---and can't be appreciated until you check out some of the DVD bonus content. It's a terrific example of a good film whose impact is greater when a bit of historical support is provided. It can be enjoyed on its most basic level, but it's not until you dig a little deeper that Cinderella Man can really be appreciated.
The "historical support"---as well as standard behind-the-scenes fare---is provided on two different levels, depending on how much you're planning to spend. The standard one-disc version offers a bit of detail in both departments, but it's this 2-disc Collector's Edition that really swings for the fences. Both are solid releases, but it's hard to resist going all the way when such a good effort is put forth.
While Cinderella Man may not be in the same artistic league as Raging Bull, have the mainstream popularity of Rocky or the off-center appeal of last year's Million Dollar Baby, the total package provided here adds up to a very satisfying DVD release that should easily balance out the film's underwhelming box office run. Even so, let's take a closer look at what's included here, shall we?
Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English or French), Cinderella Man sounds great from start to finish. Dialogue is clean and clear, while the boxing sequences open up the soundstage nicely (though the atmosphere could have been a bit stronger on a few occasions). A full-blown DTS track might have been an interesting addition, but this 5.1 mix is serviceable and should really please fans of the film. Optional English captions---as well as Spanish and French subtitles---have been provided during the main feature. Also of note is an English DVS audio track; basically, it's a detailed narration of the film for those with visual impairments, and it's a thoughtful inclusion that should be used more often.
The simple but attractive menu designs (seen above) are highly reminiscent of those from A Beautiful Mind, combining a simple layout with easy navigation. This 145-minute film has been divided into a very modest 20 chapters, while a subtle layer change was detected right near the 65-minute mark. The packaging for this Collector's Edition looks classy, though it's a bit hard to handle: while the booklet and other printed matter fit easily into the sturdy, book-like case, both discs are placed in overlapping spindles. This wouldn't be a problem on the surface, but the first disc is dual-sided and highly prone to scratches and fingerprints. Clumsy folks might want to wear white gloves with this one, though I wish Universal would stop using DVD-18s entirely. Do us a favor and spend three extra cents per unit, OK?
First up on Disc One (Side A) are a trio of Audio Commentaries with director Ron Howard, writer Akiva Goldsman---who'll never live down Batman & Robin or Lost in Space---and co-writer Cliff Hollingsworth, though it's odd they couldn't have shared a track. Frequent pauses slow down the pace a bit and lots of information is repeated during other extras, but it's good to see a decent effort put forth here.
Side B gets things started right with a selection of Deleted and Extended Scenes (7 scenes, 21 minutes total) which also include optional commentary by Howard. Though some of his commentary is repeated from the chat on Side A, it's good to hear exactly why Howard chose to trim Cinderella Man---and there's more where that came from, if you keep reading. Also here is The Fight Card (23 minutes), a casting featurette that details how Crowe, Zellweger and the rest of the crew got on board. Next up is A Filmmaking Journey (14 minutes), which includes the director sharing some detail about how the film was conceived and produced. For the Record: A History in Boxing (7 minutes, below left) is "hosted" by boxing consultant Angelo Dundee and sheds some light on the film's attention to detail in the ring, while Ringside Seats (9 minutes) adds another layer by detailing historical footage of the Braddock-Baer fight from 1935. There's also Friends and Family Behind the Legend (11 minutes), a nice look at---what else?---Braddock's friends and family, who reveal how they helped out with the film's production. Last and least is a corny tie-in Kodak Commercial (2 minutes) which ends this round.
Disc Two ups the ante with even more Deleted and Extended Scenes (10 scenes, 15 minutes total---what is this, a View Askew disc?!), again with optional commentary by Howard. Next up is a real highlight: Russell Crow's Personal Journey (28 minutes), a video diary-style piece that details the actor's extensive training for the role. There's also Pre-Fight Preparations (25 minutes total), a series of four featurettes that shed light on the script, set design, more of Crowe's training and a fun look at creative crowd-making. Next up is The Fight from Every Angle (22 minutes); it's a more extensive look at the film's choreography, though I'll admit I was expecting a multi-angle style presentation of the production process. The true centerpiece of this disc, however, is the actual Braddock vs. Baer Championship Fight from June 13, 1935 (32 minutes, above right), a fascinating piece of sports history that fans should really enjoy. Winding things down is a Photo Montage (3 minutes), a Music Featurette (2 minutes) and The Human Face of the Depression (5 minutes), a closing piece from Howard about his family's experience with the disaster and how it affected his role as a director. The packaging extras consist of a nice glossy scrapbook filled with photos and a few commemorative cards.
Overall, there's an exhaustive set of bonus features included here---they're a bit disorganized, but there's plenty to dig through. I was disappointed to see that nearly all the extras are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen (with "Russell Crowe's Personal Journey" being the only applicable exception), as it makes the whole experience a bit sloppy for 16:9 television owners. The steep price tag may drive casual viewers away, but those who loved Cinderella Man will agree that it's worth the extra cash.
It's not a perfect presentation on all counts, but this Collector's Edition of Cinderella Man offers a detailed look at a fascinating subject. It'll take the better part of an evening to dig through all the extras, while the main feature itself is strong enough to encourage repeat viewings. Those new to the film should certainly seek out a rental first, while more casual fans may find the regular edition of the film to be a more comfortable fit. If you really enjoyed Cinderella Man, though, this deluxe release should be right up your alley: the technical presentation gets the job done, while the best extras in the bunch can only be found here. You'll want to shop around to get a great deal, but this 2-disc Collector's Edition is worth hunting down for those who love great DVD packages. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable desk jockey and art instructor based in Harrisburg, PA, who enjoys freelance graphic design and illustration. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery and writing things in third person.