New Jersey light heavyweight contender Braddock's rising career hit the skids just as the stock market crashed; like millions of Americans, he and his family made the adjustment from middle-class comfort to hand-to-mouth scrabbling. Stripped of his license when persistent injuries put him on a brutal losing streak, Braddock vies for day shifts on the docks, where he befriends Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine), who with his union leanings and taste for alcohol proves a tragic figure. Braddock, on the other hand, is an up-by-the-bootstraps kind of fellow who sees no villains, capitalist or otherwise, behind the nation's hard times; he believes it's all a matter of luck. Still, Crowe conveys his pain when he must resort to public relief to feed his three children and keep the electricity running in their tenement apartment. He's also the sort of guy who repays the government "loan" when his fortunes change.
Braddock gets his second chance thanks to his resourceful manager and a tough but compassionate promoter--played, respectively, by Paul Giamatti and Bruce McGill, in very different but equally entertaining turns. Craig Bierko is also effective as heavyweight champ Max Baer, convincing both as a powerhouse in the ring and as a strutting peacock outside it. For the main roles and the many extras, Howard gets the faces right, opting for character over glamour. But the production suffers under the weight of Spielbergian period detail, the kind of overstated "authenticity" that never feels lived-in. The exceptions are the dock scenes and the fights themselves, which, with the nearly half-hour climactic bout between Braddock and Baer, form a significant portion of the film's running time. Well-edited by Mike Hill and Dan Hanley, they have a pounding intensity. But the Toronto-shot film's handsome, dark cinematography can't compensate for a lack of real dramatic tension. Thomas Newman's uncharacteristically mushy score succeeds only in its brawnier Celtic-themed passages. Starring Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko, Paddy Considine and Bruce McGill. Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman. Produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Penny Marshall. A Universal release. Period drama. Rated PG-13 for intense boxing violence and some language. Running time: 144 min