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Fiction as fascinating as fact


``Cinderalla Man" releasing today has both fist and heart.

Russell Crowe portrays Jim Braddock.

It is time to trundle out that tired old cliché, ``They don't make them like that any more" - and to do it without cynicism, without any apologies. ``Cinderella Man" that opens its India run this week, is set in the 1920s and 30s - and recalls the uncomplicated feel-good films of that era, crafted by the likes of Frank Capra and Howard Hawks.

They had stars like James Stewart and Spencer Tracy to convey sheer goodness under adversity and while we are not short on macho heroes these days, where does one look for such towering stature; for a role that demands physical presence with transparent sincerity? It is a pleasant discovery, therefore, that such star quality is not dead, that in New Zealand-born Australian, Russell Crowe, we have the 21st century's Mr Sincerity of the screen. Yet why are we surprised?

Consider his recent work: In his Oscar winning role in 2001, as the ``Gladiator" and his subsequent performance as the dour sea captain in ``Master and Commander," he delivers powerful physical performances. Yet his Oscar-nominated roles as the mathematical genius John Nash in ``A Beautiful Mind" and as the tobacco industry whistle blower in ``The Insider" reveal Crowe's capacity for nuanced cerebral roles.

Both qualities are seen in convincing combo when he plays the true life role of `Gentleman' Jim Braddock, whose riches-to-rags-to-riches saga, made him an inspiration and a legend in his lifetime.

Damon Runyon, humane chronicler of America's Depression Era - the late 1920s and early 1930s - called Braddock the ``Cinderella Man," a name that displaced his earlier nickname: the Bulldog of Bergen, one of the most famous light-heavyweight boxers of the 1920s, and the pride of New Jersey.

The film opens with a sharp close up of two faces in the boxing ring, with the fists of one about to knock out the other - it is an indication that, sometimes ballet-like, often brutal, encounters are central to the film's visual impact. It does not prepare us for the emotional punch that it delivers alongside, a `feel good' factor, so often missing from today's cold hearted, effects-heavy spectaculars.

That is because the Braddock character is simply put, a good man, whose entire tortured career in the ring is ruled by his fierce desire to uphold family values. In the hands of director Ron Howard, whose latest film with Crowe (``A Beautiful Mind") won him a personal Best Directing Oscar, the Braddock family's descent into poverty is sometimes slick, but never sickly sentimental.

The film's humanity extends to Braddock's manager Joe Gould ( Paul Giamatti) who in his own way, has the makings of greatness under adversity: he and his wife sell all their furniture so that their protégé can have his comeback bout. His broken right hand forces Braddock to develop his other arm, while he does manual labour on the docks. Now it has equipped him with a lethal left hook that helps him climb back into the ring and a climactic heavyweight bout in 1935 with the reigning champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko), whose punch is so powerful, two of his opponents have died.

The gruelling 15-round finale is told through excruciating close-ups, alternating with audience reaction shots that include, wife, kids - and thousands sitting by their radios and praying that their icon will prevail. It's so unsubtly manipulative and even predictable (when the hero is known as Cinderella, how can he lose?), that even the most non-violent among the audience will find them selves praying that the hero pummels his opponent to a standstill.

Sociologists might ponder on the violence of wish fulfilment, but Crowe's transparent sincerity ensures that we leave remembering the central message: the importance of family and how much some people will fight to preserve it. It is incidental, and mildly disappointing, that in this case the word `fight' had to be so viscerally literal.

Ring roundup

When the star is a boxer in his own right - it helps. Which is why ``Gentleman Jim" was a big hit in 1942. Errol Flynn was not faking when he played turn-of-century pugilist James Corbett in the rousing Raoul Walsh `biopic.'

Another true life story that got it grittily right was the 1980 recreation of the life and boxing career of Jake LeMotta. ``Raging Bull" won its star Robert De Niro, a Best Actor Oscar, but voters' issues with the film's graphic violence robbed director Brian De Palma of his own Academy Award. There were no issues three years earlier when the same Academy bestowed Oscars for Best Film, Director and Editing on ``Rocky," the first of what was to become a lucrative five-film saga for Sylvester Stallone, recreating the quintessential underdog story of chump-turned-champ, Rocky Balboa.

Will Smith won general praise for his charismatic portrayal of Muhammad Ali in the 2001 film ``Ali" - but the real boxing legend was still alive and still making news which somehow robbed the film of any compelling attraction.

There was no such problem when veteran Clint Eastwood fashioned a grit-n-guts story about a female boxing aspirant in this year's big Oscar surprise, ``Million Dollar Baby" starring Hilary Swank. It had fist and heart in equal measure — a formula to success that Cinderella Man seems poised to repeat.

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