Ron Howard knows how to make a Hollywood movie. This lion-hearted biopic about heavyweight James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) boils down to the final 30 minutes: Braddock’s epic New York City fight with Max Baer in June 1935. Braddock, who weighed nearly 20 pounds less than Baer, worked his way back into the ring after a losing streak that mirrored the country’s. His patient but relentless transformation from impoverished milkman into a hero of the people (when boxing was one part animal brawn, two parts corruption) is a supremely serviceable Depression metaphor.
Those who saw the fight said Braddock embodied the phrase “wouldn’t be denied.” Joe Louis later called him the bravest fighter he’d ever met (Louis won). Howard and Crowe honor the legend’s moment with heroically vivid images bolstered by Craig Bierko’s bearish Baer, whose facial ferocity carries the full weight of a boxer’s taunting, wounded fury (Baer’s punches had killed two fighters). If you want to make triumphant fiction about beaten-down men with love of family and nowhere to go but up, always pick boxers, and always use Crowe. Renée Zellweger is fine as Mea, Braddock’s suffering, patient wife, but it’s almost beside the point.