Cinderella Man is based on the true story of Irish-American boxer James J. Braddock, a man who defined what boxing was made of in the 1930's. His career had a promising start, but he stopped winning fights, stopped drawing the crowds, and stopped pulling in any major cash for getting the bloody pulp beat out of him night after night. Braddock eventually hit rock bottom after breaking his hand during a fight in which the ref was forced to throw in the towel, ultimately causing his license to be revoked. As a result his family couldn't afford food, milk, electricity, heat, and finding work was near impossible with a busted hand. A second chance comes to Braddock when there's a last minute cancellation to an important fight, as promoters are left scrambling to find a fighter who's willing to step in the ring without any time to train. The fight is advertised as Braddock's final goodbye to boxing and pegs him as the underdog. Braddock unexpectedly comes out on top, and the positive reception to his comeback pulls him back into the game.
Although Braddock is thrilled to be making money again by doing what he knows best, his wife isn't so sure it's the best thing for the family. She's always stood behind him, but was always afraid her husband would meet a very violent end in the ring. She never loved James because she smelled the possibility of success, she's only ever cared about the man behind the gloves. She would rather live a life in poverty with the man she loves than lose him to gain some financial stability. Braddock continues to fight his way up the ladder until he has a shot at the Heavyweight title, against a man who's killed no less than two people in the ring. The odds are stacked against him, and life is coming dangerously close to imitating his wife's worst nightmare.
It's hard not to compare this to Rocky, as it's ultimately about an underdog that defies all odds as he climbs his way to the top. Although this is ground that's been tread in cinematic history before, it's my humble opinion that Cinderella Man is far superior at conveying its story in almost every definable way. Call it blasphemous if you will, but Ron Howard did an extraordinary job at pulling on my heartstrings whenever and whichever way he wanted to. It's not too often a film can grab me by my emotions and keep me sucked in throughout its entirety, yet that's exactly what happened here. I felt the love radiating from Braddock and his family, the devastation of being both broke and broken during a time of poverty, and I clung nervously to the edge of my seat every time Braddock took a punch. The script was fairly simple if not a little cliché, but Howard knew how to drive it home in almost every aspect of the production.
The fine acting is just as responsible for the greatness this film has achieved as well. Russell Crowe gives a very strong performance as Braddock. I don't know how Braddock was in real life, but after all was said and done I had an incredible amount of respect for the man. Paul Giamatti was both energetic and warm in his role as Braddock's coach. Now I'm not a fan of Renee Zellweger by any means, but she did an outstanding job as the loyal and loving wife.
There are some that think Ron Howard is a little over the top with how he reaches out emotionally to an audience, and I think that's certainly true depending on the film, but I think Cinderella Man isn't just one of Howard's finest accomplishments, it's one of the finer films from recent years in general. It's true that this film may not break any new ground, and you may even feel like you've seen it all before. It matters not though, because this emotional tale of a real life underdog is an incredibly moving rollercoaster that can make even the most toughened moviegoer feel everything from pride to joy, and even heartbreak. If, like me, you've put off seeing Cinderella Man for one reason or another up until now, don't hesitate any longer.
Cinderella Man uses a color palette that has a golden hue to it, an effort that's undoubtedly meant to give the film the retro vibe of the 1930's. It's incredibly effective at conveying the time in which the film took place, as well as the 'so unbelievable it's practically a fairy tale' aspect. What it's not good for however is a fine presentation in high def. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of clarity and detail throughout, but this artistic choice robs most of the film from shining. Scenes that are dark in nature suffer from muddy looking blacks due to the golden hue, and fine detail seems to hide behind the color coating as well. It's unfortunate the contrast must suffer the way it does in darker scenes, as shots that are outside during the day sport a pretty solid black level as well as a lot more definition. When the right lighting conditions allow it (daytime), there's a fine level of depth. The film as a whole ends up looking pretty flat overall though. On the up side the print is extremely clean as there's no dirt or artifacts to really complain about, or even edge enhancement for that matter. There's no doubt that this has to look quite a bit better than the DVD release, but the issues caused by this golden glow effect don't make this for a particularly great high def presentation.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track was an interesting listen. Most of the film is dialogue driven, and although the dialogue comes off crisp and clean without any issues, there wasn't anything that took advantage of the rear channels in those scenes, not even for a little ambience now and again. The fantastic score from Thomas Newman took full advantage of the directional sound field however, and it was incredibly vibrant. It was able to hang around as background music at times, but was able to come out in full force on command. I'm not a fan of mixes that keep most everything except for the score in the front speakers, but I think it actually adds to the effect of this particular film. The boxing scenes do nothing less than throw a wall of sound at you from every possible angle. This shows off the very impressive dynamic range this track has to offer, because the roar of the crowd is so forceful you're going to be taken aback the first time you hear it. The rest of the film is so quiet yet incredibly easy to hear, that when Braddock steps into the ring and the sound reaches out from your speakers to envelop you, the emotional effect you're supposed to get (pride, suspense, fear) is going to be unavoidable. So although much of the movie utilizes the fronts very heavily, this is due to the mix itself, and in Cinderella Man's case it works!
Feature Commentary with Director Ron Howard - Ron Howard was clearly the main source of Cinderella Man's vision, and it pretty much shows in this one man commentary. He has a lot to say and provides a lot of insight to his thought processes throughout the course of the film's entire production. He touches on aspects of casting, filming, doing justice to the real James Braddock, and much, much more.
Feature Commentary with Co-writer Akiva Goldsman - This commentary is quite a different experience though. Although it's incredibly nice to have the thoughts of a Co-writer, Goldsman is an absolute bore. There's a lot of information that's brought out that was already talked about during Howard's commentary, and although a different take on the information is refreshing, the numerous gaps of silence throughout the track take the wind out of this one. I would skip this.
Feature Commentary with Co-writer Cliff Hollingsworth - The commentary with Hollingsworth isn't much of a different take than Goldsman's. It's full of dead air, and incredibly dull. There's some nice information brought out here, but the two and a half hour runtime doesn't do this track any favors. You'll want to skip this one as well.
It's a shame that these commentaries were all recorded separately. There probably could have been a much more dynamic conversation if they were all in the same room together, or at least two of them. Howard did a nice job at filling out his track pretty nicely, so the Co-writers getting together on their own might have been a good idea. What we get is a bunch of retread information and dead air in their tracks. Can't blame Universal for trying to give us as much content as possible, but I can certainly blame them for not thinking this through.
Deleted Scenes - The deleted scenes are actually a pretty interesting watch and really weren't harmful material in and of themselves. They would have dragged out the film to be a little longer than it needed to be, especially since the deleted material times in at around 35 minutes. These scenes can be viewed with or without commentary from Howard, however the audio introduction set over a screen that simply says Cinderella Man is mandatory.
The Fight Card: Casting Cinderella Man - This featurette fills us in on how the people behind the scenes were able to draw such an excellent cast. This film undoubtedly would have been much less effective if it weren't for having the right people in each role, so this is a pretty interesting watch.
For the Record: A History in Boxing - Boxing consultant Angelo Dundee talks about the similarities that can be seen the details of a real boxing match and the ones that are on display in the film.
Ringside Seats - This is a discussion that's held with Howard and others while watching historical fight footage of the real Braddock.
Jim Braddock: The Friends & Family Behind the Legend - The friends and family of James Braddock (the ones still alive) had some input during the production of the film, and they detail that experience here.
Pre-Fight Preparations - This covers numerous production aspects of pulling together the fight scenes in the film. This includes writing, training, design, and more.
Lights, Camera, Action: The Fight From Every Angle - You won't have to find the 'angle' button on your player remote, it's just a misleading play of words. That's not to say this featurette isn't interesting though. It covers piecing together the choreography for the fight scenes in the film. I found this to be incredibly interesting, considering how fluid boxing can look when you're watching a couple of real fighters go at it. This aspect of the film was perfect, so to see how it was pulled off is a great extra.
Braddock vs. Baer Fight Footage - The title of this featurette is pretty self explanatory, and any sports buff as well as any fan of the film should definitely check this out!
The Sound of the Bell - If you're interested in knowing about Thomas Newman's creative process, this short featurette will do just that. Considering how many films this acclaimed score writer has enhanced with his music, this is definitely worth checking out.
Cinderella Man Music Featurette - This is an advertisement for the soundtrack for Cinderella Man, nothing worth any interest here.
The Human Face of the Depression - This featurette is made up of a one on one interview with Howard and Grazer, as well as some pieces of an old student film Howard made a long time ago. Cinderella Man did a great job at conveying the incredibly rough times during the Depression, but this featurette makes it very clear that the people behind the scenes did everything they could to make that moment in history as realistic as possible for the film.
Russell Crowe's Personal Journey: Becoming Jim Braddock - This is a video montage of Crowe training to seem like an authentic boxer set over some music.
Also available on this release is a 3 minute Photo Montage.
The features are quite extensive, if not a little too extensive (three commentaries). Every vital element that should accompany a time period film about one of the most memorable boxers of all time is here though, and there's really nothing I can complain about.
As I've said, I thoroughly enjoyed the Rocky films, but Cinderella Man has taken the number one spot for the genre in my heart. Ron Howard delivers one of the most memorable films in recent years, and his emotional and dramatic storytelling capabilities are practically second to none. It may not earn points for being groundbreaking or fresh, but sometimes all a film needs to do is do what it set out to do, and do it well. The great direction and great acting have perfected what could have been an incredibly simple film, and there's not a single one of you that shouldn't take the time to see this film if you haven't done so already. The video transfer isn't going to knock you off your socks due to the artistic choices made, but the audio track during the fight scenes is an experience you need to have. The special features are plentiful and mostly relevant as well. I know it's not surprising the way I've been raving that I highly recommend this film. You're not really going to find anything new in the way of extras if you already own the DVD or HD-DVD, but anyone who hasn't seen the film or merely wants to upgrade from the standard def release, this release is a no-brainer.