'Cinderella Man' Likely to Be 'Million Dollar' Hit

The emotionally intense boxing drama "Million Dollar Baby" (search) has just barely left theaters, but audiences better brace themselves: Another emotionally intense boxing drama opens this weekend.

That movie is, of course, director Ron Howard's "Cinderella Man" (search), which stars Russell Crowe (search), Renee Zellweger and Paul Giamatti ("Sideways") and is already getting Oscar buzz.

But are American filmgoers ready, so soon after "Baby," to put on those big, padded gloves again, get back in the ring and vicariously duke it out against a new set of opponents — this time through Crowe's character, Depression-era boxing great James J. Braddock (search)?

Film experts and boxing fans say they are. That's because "Cinderella Man" — like "Million Dollar Baby," the "Rocky" series and most of the other notable films in the genre — isn't just about the sport or the fight. It's about the rags-to-riches struggle against poverty and class.

"His [Braddock's] was really a Cinderella story," said retired accountant and boxing fanatic Richard Nebenzahl, 58, of Queens, N.Y. "The guy was down and out. People can identify with the poor boy making good."

In fact, Braddock's plight during the Great Depression was so similar to that of the impoverished fairy tale heroine with the wicked stepsisters, he was nicknamed "Cinderella Man" — a fitting title for Howard's movie.

"The villain in this film is poverty," the Chicago Sun-Times quoted Howard as saying. "His fight was ultimately about feeding his kids. The ring is the only way this man can survive."

But, Associated Press movie critic Christy Lemire pointed out, such flicks don't always get rave reviews, either in the media or at the box office.

"Not all boxing movies are good," she told FOXNews.com. "'The Main Event' from 1979 [with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal] was just horrible."

Among other flops, "Ali" didn't make a big splash among the viewing public or with film reviewers, though star Will Smith was praised for his performance as Muhammad Ali. And knock-'em-out reality shows like "The Contender" (search) and "The Next Great Champ" (search) failed to find a significant audience.

Furthermore, real boxing has actually seen a major decline since its heyday in the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

"It's flailing," said New York Post sports writer Tim Kerrigan. "It used to be one of the big three sports — boxing, baseball and horse racing."

Boxing also used to be broadcast over the free airwaves, with major fights airing weekly, often on Friday nights.

"Now most of the title fights — the big fights people want to see — are on pay-per-view, so you have to pay $50 to see them," Kerrigan said. "It's fallen onto the fringe."

Maybe the current wave of boxing cinema can pick the sport back up, brush it off and get it back into the ring.

The film trend isn't new — the list of movies about boxers real and imagined is long, and includes notables like "Body and Soul" (1947), "Champion" (1949), "Somebody Up There Likes Me" (1956), "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (1962), the five-film series "Rocky" (1976-1990, with a sixth in the works), "Raging Bull" (1980), "The Boxer" (1997), and "Ali" (2001). Many have been hits.

As for "Million Dollar Baby" (2004), it hadn't drummed up big audience dollars in spite of good reviews (much like every other Oscar contender this year). But the tides turned after it won the Academy Award for best picture, acting statuettes for stars Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman and the best director award for Clint Eastwood.

And the ultimate popularity of "Baby" is expected to help fuel interest in "Cinderella Man" — which so far has been well-received by critics.

"Cinderella Man" also just happens to star popular Oscar-winners Crowe (who hasn't done a film since 2003's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World") and Zellweger. It's also helmed by Howard, who directed Crowe in his Oscar-nominated performance in "A Beautiful Mind."

Another good sign for "Cinderella": The success of "Million Dollar Baby" seems to have inspired a hunger for boxing as a form of fitness.

"There is an increase in interest in this form of exercise," said L.A.-based celebrity trainer Keli Roberts. "These movies not only create interest, but they inspire people."

Boxing is also a symbol for America's melting pot history.

"You can trace immigration by who's going into boxing," said James Como, 58, a communications professor, boxing fan and close friend of Nebenzahl. "A lot of them are recently arrived immigrants. It's a map of our socio-economic past."

Fighters in bygone eras have been Italian, Irish, Jewish and African-American; many of today's boxers are African-American and Hispanic, he said.

No matter what their racial and ethnic backgrounds, boxers — real and in film — often provide regular folk with someone to admire, just when they need it most.

Braddock was battling to keep himself and his family afloat — as were so many families in this country during the Great Depression. Just when it seemed he'd go under for good, he won the big match, saving his family from ruin and giving his people the shot of hope they desperately needed.

"He was fighting for his community," said film critic Anderson Jones of AMC's The Movie Club. "All those folks were rooting for him during the Depression. They were sad times, and they needed a hero."

And boxing can be a compelling backdrop for filmmakers because of what it represents on a deeper level — the ring is an allegory for life's struggles.

"'Cinderella Man' is a story about the Depression," said boxing fan David Irving, the undergraduate chair of film and television at New York University. "The Clint Eastwood story is really about euthanasia. These boxing pictures are using that background in order to play off people's primal emotions."

Aside from the story of inner and societal struggle, boxing is also a way for filmgoers to get enmeshed in an intense (staged) fight without having to punch and be punched themselves — all the while knowing it's just make-believe movie magic.

"There's an attraction to the animal instincts boxers can act out onscreen that we don't get a chance to," said Lemire. "It's cathartic. Who of us would have the guts to get in the ring and take a punch?"

Glowing praise aside for boxing, boxers and boxing films, the sport is a dangerous game that can have grave consequences. In that vein, fisticuff movies run the risk of glorifying the violent act of physically beating someone up so badly that he — or she — falls to the ground.

But the thrill of the risk is part of what draws people to the ring — whether it's the real thing, the kind simulated in a gym or one created in film. The struggle for survival is also a selling point.

"In the ring, boy, there's no hiding, there's no pretending," said Como, the communications professor. "You're alone — it's just you. You realize you can keep going far beyond what you thought you could do."