No prizes for guessing the ending. It's called Cinderella Man. And this (remarkably) true underdog story has 'Hollywood fantasy' pasted all over it in lustrous autumnal brush strokes. Perfect material for Ron Howard, then - an old-fashioned, no-flash storyteller with a weakness for the sentimental. It gives him the chance to do for poverty what he did for mental illness with A Beautiful Mind. That's the great thing about suffering: it's dead romantic. So, as Crowe's desperate Braddock pulls On The Waterfront-style dockside line-ups with Commie loser Paddy Considine, the bleak, biting authenticity of '30s USA gets a glossy new coat from DoP Salvatore Totino. Howard loves this stuff: empty milk bottles slumped on the porch; newspaper headlines blaring unemployment stats; the hungry faces of Braddock's nippers as they shiver in their basement hovel chomping on a feeble slice of baloney... And that's exactly what Howard's feeding us: rope-a-dope schmaltz telegraphed straight for the heart. Still, you'll marvel at how Braddock's squinty, gerbil-cheeked wife (Zellweger) can afford make-up and posh hair-care even at the height of the Depression. Maybe that's why her kids are starving.
But there, manfully shouldering the whole cornball pile-up, is Crowe, weighing in with a performance that flexes effortlessly between juggernaut physicality, anguished pride and warm sincerity. He should be a two-legged Seabiscuit. Instead, he's utterly believable, proving once again that when he's not throwing tantrums off-camera, he's the most forceful Hollywood actor working today.
And then, this being a boxing movie, there's the in-ring action. Forget Raging Bull's expressionist ballets - these are fights. Locking us behind Braddock's aching point of view with flashes of white pain and foggy speed-shifts, Howard makes us feel the sweat and crunch of every blow. Better still, as Braddock smashes his way towards a title fight with fearsome champ Max Baer (Bierko, a circus meanie with Jake La Motta's hairdresser), there's Paul Giamatti waiting for us in the corner, the best vitriol-spewing sad-sack in the biz. Riffing on Muhammad Ali's legendary trainer Angelo Dundee (who pops up in cameo), he's a yapping treat as Braddock's friend and manager. Expect an Oscar nom for the Sideways star who was robbed last year.
So make no mistake: it's a puffy-eyed weeper, all ham-fisted sentiment and glazed emotions. But Crowe and Giamatti are genuine contenders.
A too true to be good heart-pulling story, given punch by knockout fight scenes and the killer combo of Crowe and Giamatti.