Gotham City, as conceived by designer Nathan Crowley, would appear to be Chicago though elements of Boston and Philadelphia are present. The film has pristine production values and a haunting, evocative score from the tag team of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. Befitting its ambitions, the sweep of Wally Pfister’s imagery encompasses the viscera of high-speed pursuits and the intimacy of its protagonist’s inner turmoil.A cat by popular observance has nine lives and one can only conclude that a bat’s incarnations are several multiples greater. Since debuting as a comic book hero in 1939, the urban vigilante known as Batman has morphed into the protagonist of several cinematic serials during the ’40s, a kitsch icon of 1960s television and a movie box-office superstar of the 1990s that ran to ground after four outings and three performers donned mask and cowl.The arrival of Batman Begins engenders mixed emotions, with the negative end of the spectrum voicing in exasperation, “Oh, not another Batman movie.” However, it’s also worth noting the malleability of the character that seems to adapt quite gracefully for each new generation, and under the direction of Christopher Nolan is indeed reborn with a vitality and resonance that seems perfectly attuned to the present.This incarnation owes much to the Dark Knight evolution of the Bat-Man that emerged in the 1980s as graphic novels took hold. The most distinctive departure of the new film is in its creation of a timeless world rather than past efforts that have confined the character to the present, even a highly stylized one. Gotham City, as conceived by designer Nathan Crowley is a city of the past as well as the future. Its physical template would appear to be Chicago though elements of Boston and Philadelphia are present. The pastiche of skyscrapers, elevated trains and tenements is the shape of things to come viewed through the lens of visionary work as disparate as Metropolis and Blade Runner.The bare bones of the crime fighter’s origin remain intact. As a boy, Bruce Wayne witnesses the murder of his high society-parents by a low-life thug and vows vengeance against the criminal elements despoiling the city. As he reaches adulthood, he strives to find a manner and method of realizing his pursuit and discovers it in the image of the bat a symbol that will strike fear into the hearts of the lawless.Logically his transformation could not have occurred overnight and it’s here that the film delves into the missing years delineated in the graphic novels. His quest leads him to the East where he comes to train with a mystical group of righteous avengers known as the League of Shadows. The inner and physical strength he develops nicely dovetails with his access to cutting-edge weaponry and gadgets via the family business upon his return home.The film transcends all other comic-book adaptations with a densely packed narrative befitting an epic drama. The film has an adroit sense of action and spectacle; fight choreography and vivid visual effects without any of those elements overwhelming the story or its characters. It is a modern morality play in which the clash between good and evil is complex, variegated and disturbing, and the tacit heroics are often bruising rather than soothing or edifying.In addition to a sterling cast led by Christian Bale in the title role and stand-out work from Liam Neeson, Tom Wilkinson and Katie Holmes, the film has pristine production values and a haunting, evocative score from the tag team of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard.Befitting its ambitions, the sweep of Wally Pfister’s imagery encompasses the viscera of high-speed pursuits and the intimacy of its protagonist’s inner turmoil. It complements the saga and is always on point, never flagging in the relentless and organic drive to question, act, fulfill a destiny and entertain.The research and attention to detail by both costume designer Daniel Orlandi and production designer Wynn Thomas pays off in subtle fashion. The environment may not be fetid but it’s suffocating and one senses its psychological toll just as the simple, well-worn wardrobe of characters stamps their economic station.Stepping into the ring is cinema’s most enduring and potent sporting analogy. From The Champ to Million Dollar Baby with countless stops ranging from Rocky to Raging Bull, one man pitted against an opponent and his inner demons in a contest of blows has repeatedly spoken to our dreams and aspirations.While Cinderella Man tells the true tale of the meteoric and improbable career of James Bradock, who fought for the heavyweight title in 1935, it resonates with contemporary concerns about family, the dignity of life and just making ends meet. It both suffers and is redeemed by familiarity and should be avoided by anyone sated with stories where characters triumph over adversity. Personally, it’s a formula I find endlessly intoxicating.There’s a different sort of elevation or context in play in the film directed by Ron Howard. Though unquestionably steeped in the boxing milieu, the fights are primarily secondary to an unremitting love story and an era that knocked down more men than all the champions that graced the card at Madison Square Garden.The strength of the piece in great part rests on its approach to visualizing the Depression and choreographing the action in the ring. It’s not the obvious squalid approach to the era but a nicotine-stained perspective that’s crushing and unforgiving. The research and attention to detail by both costume designer Daniel Orlandi and production designer Wynn Thomas pays off in subtle fashion. The environment may not be fetid but it’s suffocating and one senses its psychological toll just as the simple, well-worn wardrobe of characters stamps their economic station.The film does not subscribe to the doctrine that decency and perseverance are rewards by definition. They are simply character traits and Russell Crowe does his best to make Braddock’s doggedness compelling while Renee Zellweger as his wife Mae demonstrates a tin and skepticism that imbues the film with its soul.When Braddock steps over the ropes one recalls the instinctual skills the fighter possessed from newsreels and his capacity to take hard and repeated blows. Howard eschews efforts to make his fights poetic or seductively thrilling. It’s not exactly realistic but the sound mix is intense and the images and cutting are unbiased. There’s a sort of beauty to the savagery but it could hardly be pegged as alluring, especially when the title character is pitted against the brutal, charismatic and unsentimental Max Baer for the crown.Cinderella Man truly goes the distance in every respect and emerges battered, scarred and bloodied yet ennobled having fought the good fight.
Written by Len Klady