The dilemma: I hate boxing movies; I love Russell Crowe movies. I've already seen "Million Dollar Baby" and "Raging Bull" this year, and accidentally watched part of one of the "son of Rocky" serial movies on a Saturday afternoon. I feel like I am being punched, as Renee' Zellwegger's character Mae Braddock says, and I'm not as tough as these prize fighters.
But this one has Russell Crowe in it. And that makes all the difference.
It is not that Renee Zellwegger and Paul Giamatti, Paddy Considine, Bruce McGill and Craig Bierko, among others, give less than stellar performances: they all live up to their justifiably great reputations. You have to believe they are at the top of their game. But for all of Russell Crowe's reputation for being "difficult", it is hard to think of actors who can equal his personal force on the screen. He is brilliant.
Ron Howard has made of the real life of Depression-era prize-fighter James J. Braddock a work of art. The camera work is phenomenal. Without using violins or cliché' pull-back shots showing the numbers of people homeless and in soup lines, Howard makes the Depression a visceral reality with scenes of near-hopeless men at the docks, pleading for a day's work; a stolen salami; Crowe's giving his daughter his breakfast piece of bologna, telling her he dreamed he was full. The bleakness of the times is the graininess and the sepia/greyness of the camera shots; the images are stark but completely descriptive. Crowe as Braddock with hat in hand and tears in his eyes, begging for twenty dollars so he can get his children back into his home, is the personification of pride sacrificed to desperation. But when Braddock is later asked at a press conference why he is fighting at his age and after so many poor showings, all he has to say is "milk" to be supremely eloquent.
Doubtless many people know the history of James Braddock, and know the outcome of his fights, including the championship bout with Max Baer, who had already killed two men in the ring. If you don't know, DON'T look it up before you see the movie, and if you DO KNOW, DON'T TELL, but go. Analogous to watching Howard's film "Apollo 13", you may know the outcome, but there's wonderful suspense in the details. These were among the most exciting last twenty minutes I've seen on film. I didn't expect to be able to watch, but like Braddock's terrified wife Mae, I was unable to tear myself away.
The audience was like a prize fight audience, cheering, booing, gasping, groaning during the fights. We applauded Braddock's wins, suffered his defeats. It is a great movie, with authentic heart. Solid A.