Ron Howard's depression-era boxing saga "Cinderella Man" has one thing in common with "Revenge of the Sith": just about everybody knows how the story will turn out. It's not that everyone's heard of James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe), the scrappy heavyweight from New Jersey whose rise and fall and rise made him a working-class hero in the depths of the Depression--the symbolic equivalent of a two-legged Seabiscuit. What we do all know is that Hollywood's not about to make a sports movie with this title that doesn't have a happy ending.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter that we can see the third act coming, or that "Cinderella Man" doesn't have an original bone in its well-oiled body, or even that the first logy hour feels dangerously generic. Once Braddock--the rundown wreck of a boxer who's reduced to begging to support his family--begins his astonishingly unlikely comeback, Howard's movie skillfully delivers that primal, heart-pounding satisfaction that is the promise of all boxing tales.
Howard directs this rousing saga with an admirable sense of restraint, taking his cue from Braddock himself, a decent, conscientious family man who wasn't given to histrionic display. Even when provoked in public by his rival, the heavyweight champ Max Baer (Craig Bierko), Braddock doesn't take the macho bait, but defuses the situation with humor. Crowe, sporting an altered nose and crinkly eyes that call to mind the young Ronald Reagan, develops a quiet, instantaneous rapport with both the audience and with Renee Zellweger, who plays his devoted wife, Mae. If Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman's screenplay idealizes their marriage, Zellweger has an uncanny ability to make us swallow even the most movie-ish moments. A delightfully scene-stealing Paul Giamatti plays Braddock's wily manager Joe Gould, who stuck by him even after Braddock had his fighter's license revoked. Funny and touching, Giamatti shows us the raw excitable emotions that keep breaking the surface of Gould's fast-talking tough-guy facade. These were all real people, but the movie invents Braddock's dockworker pal Mike (Paddy Considine), a poverty-stricken stockbroker turned bitter political activist, and he seems like a well-intended but awkward afterthought. As a history lesson (Depression 101), "Cinderella Man" feels a bit secondhand. As a true-grit tale of redemption, however, it lands one solid body punch after another.