Film Reviews: Wednesday, January 26, 2005
Clint Eastwood coaches Hilary Swank before the opening bell in ‘Million Dollar Baby.’
Million Dollar Baby
Starring Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Hilary Swank. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Paul Haggis, based on F.X. Toole’s story. Rated PG-13
Stay in My Corner

Clint Eastwood is in top form again in his boxing drama Million Dollar Baby.


Pedro Almodóvar, of all people, recently said something illuminating about Clint Eastwood’s movies. The Spanish director hailed his American colleague’s innovative use of classic film noir themes as his greatest achievement, saying “Unforgiven is really a thriller, and Mystic River a western.”
Eastwood’s latest work, the Oscar-nominated Million Dollar Baby, is quite noir-ish too. It sports a misleading title, inherited from a short story written by the late boxing “cut man” Jerry Boyd under the pen name of F.X. Toole. Like the movies that Almodóvar mentioned, it finds the director at his best: simple, graceful, unfussy, and unsentimental.
The film is narrated by Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a former prizefighter who tells the story of Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), his best friend and the owner of the L.A. gym where Scrap lives and works. Still in the fight game as a manager, Frankie loses fighters by handling them too cautiously, keeping them from title fights because he’s afraid they’ll lose. That’s when a Missouri trailer park refugee and lifelong waitress named Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) walks into his gym. At 32, she’s old for a beginning boxer, and Frankie dismisses women’s boxing as a fad: “Girlie tough ain’t enough,” he growls. Perhaps driven by his failure as a father to his own estranged daughter, Frankie takes her in, and when she starts winning, he takes some uncharacteristic chances on her behalf.
This couldn’t be a more generic set-up — Hemingway would have easily recognized this story, even with the contemporary twist of having the fighter be a woman. The characters are stock, especially the irritated priest whom Frankie pesters with theological questions, though it helps that said priest is played by powerhouse Irish actor Brían F. O’Byrne. The subplot involving a hapless Texan wannabe boxer who’s nicknamed himself Danger (Jay Baruchel) belongs in another movie. And cinematographer Tom Stern takes the movie’s low-rent visual approach to the point where some scenes are too dark. Someone needs to tell him that there are colors in the world other than gray and metallic blue. (Really, he should have gone all the way and filmed the movie in black and white, but how many filmmakers today are brave enough to do that?)
The minor flaws here can be chalked up to Eastwood’s conventional approach, but the movie’s detractors are overlooking its solid virtues. Some of it is in Paul Haggis’ skillful rendering of Toole’s occasionally purple but mostly sparse and evocative prose. Most of it, though, is in the acting. Freeman gives yet another performance as the film’s crusty voice of wisdom, and he needs to stop with these roles because he’ll likely never do them as well as he does it here. His effortless bantering with Eastwood has that nice old-married-couple vibe, but his greatest work is in the voiceover narration. It’s a treacherous part, embodying the author’s tough-guy wisdom without lapsing into triteness, and as with all his difficult assignments, this actor makes it look easy.
Meanwhile, Swank sports some fearsome-looking biceps and deltoids and is totally convincing in the film’s middle section, vanquishing a string of opponents in the ring. She’s never quite progressed beyond that bullish, un-self-pitying, working-class persona that she established so memorably in Boys Don’t Cry. (Witness her failed attempt to transplant the same role to a period setting in The Affair of the Necklace.) However, that act serves her well here. Just as she did in her scenes opposite Al Pacino in Insomnia, she’s at her best playing the eager student, silently soaking up the wisdom offered by the older male characters. The scene in which Frankie teaches Maggie how to hit the speed bag (“I’m hitting it with the back of my hand, like I’m chipping ice with an ice pick”) is a quiet marvel.
The movie takes a cruel turn in its last half-hour, as Maggie reaches the big title fight, only to have a cheating opponent shatter her dreams. The movie turns into something similar to its fellow Oscar nominee The Sea Inside, though it’s markedly superior because it doesn’t fetishize death in the way so many tearjerkers do. Eastwood the director never milks the situation for pathos, letting Eastwood the actor express all the anguish. This movie is a love story, and because the filmmaker/star keeps it a platonic one (unlike in some of his lesser recent efforts), it comes off as much more realistic and agonizing when things go bad. More than that, though, Million Dollar Baby is the tragedy of an old man who opens his heart for once and enjoys the sweetest time in his life before he gets crushed. Infusing the story with a tough-minded melodrama tinged with romantic fatalism, Clint Eastwood gives the film a power that recalls the unheralded masters of bygone Hollywood.

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