It's about time someone made a boxing movie about a down-on-his-luck pug granted a second chance at glory. Seriously, though, while Ron Howard's meat-and-potatoes Cinderella Man, a tale about a meat-and-potatoes underdog, may ring familiar, he does have history in his corner: the true story of James J. Braddock, who went from the soup lines to the heavyweight title in 1935. If Braddock's fairy tale lacks originality (haven't we seen this movie before, when it was called The Set-Up? Or Rocky?), it's because, argues co-writer Akiva Goldsman, ''the myth passed down over time lost a name, lost a face, and reemerged as the quintessential boxing story.''
What saves quintessential from being pedestrian are committed performances by Russell Crowe, Reneée Zellweger, and Paul Giamatti, who find depth and texture in otherwise ordinary roles. Crowe's passion is recorded in a video diary, chronicling his obsessive physical training and rehab from a shoulder injury that nearly derailed production. Most compelling is when Crowe admits that he feels an ''$80 million sword of Damocles hanging over my head.''
Howard has dabbled in the sweet science before (Far and Away), but for Cinderella Man he wanted ''to go at the boxing the way I went at the fires in Backdraft or the weightlessness in Apollo 13,'' he says on the making-of doc ''Lights, Camera, Action.'' ''I wanted the people in the front row to hurt a little bit.'' Painstakingly detailed throughout three-plus hours of extras, the intricate fight scenes raise the bar for authenticity, confirmed by footage of the title fight between Braddock and Max Baer which you can watch along with boxing aficionado Norman Mailer. Howard's research and Crowe's dedication are so dazzling in the ring that you almost forgive the formulaic clichés when the gloves are off.