CINDERELLA MAN — *** — Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti; rated PG-13 (violence, profanity, brief gore, vulgarity, ethnic slurs).

In spite of his many accomplishments inside and outside the ring, Jim Braddock, the real-life boxer whose life is celebrated in "Cinderella Man," is remembered as a solid if unspectacular fighter.

Those two terms, "solid" and "unspectacular," could also be used to describe Ron Howard's film about Braddock. "Cinderella Man" fits neatly into the category of feel-good, underdog sports dramas, and yet the limitations of that genre are among this movie's selling points.

In many ways this unambitious but heartfelt drama comes as a welcome breath of fresh air, especially now, when theaters are filled with dark and dreary features, the kind of heartless, soulless Hollywood constructs that glut the summer each year.

This is also a smart piece of career rehabilitation for bad-boy Russell Crowe, who stars as Jim Braddock, a fighter who enjoys modest success in the ring until the Great Depression hits. When his opportunities dry up, he finds himself taking a series of dead-end jobs just to make ends meet. And despite the pleas of his wife, Mae (Renee Zellweger), the proud Jim refuses to go on public assistance.

Eventually, good news arrives in the form of longtime manager and friend Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), who gives Jim a shot as a last-minute replacement on a prize-fight bill. Jim is not expected to win — but he does.

So the crafty Gould uses it as leverage to get Jim more fights — hoping that a few wins may earn the boxer a fight against the reigning champion, Max Baer (Craig Bierko). Baer's had a hard time getting a match since beating an opponent to death in the ring.

This is the kind of material that Howard does well. And apparently he watched "Raging Bull" many times in preparation, as the perspectives and staging for the boxing scenes are reminiscent of Martin Scorsese's Oscar-nominated drama.

There are a few clumsy moments, including a subplot about Jim's friendship with another down-and-out family man (Paddy Considine), which is unnecessary and only pads out the film. But the fight scenes are rousing, as is the effective and affecting human drama.

It helps that Crowe's performance is low-key. He lets his body rather than his words do the talking. And speaking of physical, the hulking Bierko turns in his best work to date as Baer.

On the support side, Zellweger is just OK, and her disappearing and reappearing accent is a bit of a distraction. Giamatti is miles better. In fact, his turn as the fast-talking Gould will probably, deservedly, garner Oscar talk.

"Cinderella Man" is rated PG-13 for some pretty brutal boxing violence (as well as some riot suppression), scattered use of profanity, some brief gore, and use of a few vulgar slang terms and ethnic slurs. Running time: 138 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com