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Fighting for your food and your family

Ron Howard boxing opus takes its time in developing a world outside the ring

The notion of sports allowing an everyman to become a hero is nothing new. One needs only to look to last weekend’s “The Longest Yard” to find a story about a down-and-out loser rising back to fame on the football field.

“Cinderella Man” twists that formula, however, to show an everyman using sports as a means of climbing out of the pit of despair.

There’s a difference here, and an important one. The first template is about an average Joe achieving a high. The second is about a desperate man avoiding a low.

One is a story of triumph, the other a story of mere survival.

This is what the new Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”) drama does well – so well, in fact, that one wonders why Universal Pictures delayed the film from last year’s Oscar season only to release it amid this year’s summer blockbusters. This stands as one of the best films of the summer so far and one of the most compelling sports dramas in years.

It is led by two brave and unsentimental performances from Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger. Cynics out there will mock the film’s earnestness and emotion. And yes, there are sport films out there, such as “Seabiscuit,” in which overcoming adversity runs dangerously close to the realm of cliches.

But “Cinderella Man” does not simplify the film’s background issues, but brings them to the front of the story. In a Depression-era United States, Crowe and Zellweger, as husband and wife, face the prospect of sending their children away from their unheated apartment. It is when Crowe, a former boxing champion, is reduced to begging his former colleagues for money to pay the utility bill that he finally snaps up the offer to compete in an uneven match, in which he’s expected to be more punching bag than boxer.

Howard, unlike his last few films, shows remarkable restraint in the story’s earlier chapters. For the majority of the first hour, the film is a purely domestic affair, developing the relationship between the two leads and the importance of family to Crowe’s life. This might be one of the few sports films in which that tearful moment, as spouses lock eyes during that big final contest, actually resonates with emotion.

The second hour is peppered with exciting sports sequences. What sets these apart is the choreography and strategy of the victories. Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”), playing a boxing manager, has a real chemistry with Crowe, and we quickly get the sense that Crowe wins these matches not solely because of the dictates of the movie gods, but because he has skills, uses them smartly and occasionally brings his brain into the equation.

While the film is based on the story of a real Depression-era boxer, the title is deceiving. In the Cinderella fairy tale, magic intervenes in a girl’s miserable life and a perfect-fitting slipper makes her dreams come true. In the “Cinderella Man” version, replace that magic with bad luck and insert a man willing to break his own foot to make the slipper fit if it gives his children heat and food.

It’s the story of a hero with the grit, heart and smarts to actually be a hero.

Now there’s a fairy tale we don’t get much of anymore.

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