Million Dollar Baby

Eastwood delivers another knockout.

Released in 2004, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 18 Jan 2005 by Scott Morris
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Clint Eastwood is really just taking the piss now. Having established his acting credentials beyond a doubt with decades of top drawer, gravel-voiced performances in the like of the Dirty Harry movies, Sergio Leone's Spag Bol Westerns and Unforgiven, he turns his hand to direction with equally stellar results. Mystic River was a contender for film of the year in quite a few categories as far as some were concerned, and to prove he's no one trick pony (okay, as though Unforgiven didn't) along comes Million Dollar Baby.

Mr. Eastwood steps into the role of Frank Dunn, boxing gym owner and trainer. Things aren't going too well for Frank; the gym's barely ticking over financially, his best hope for a champion 'Big' Willy Little (Mike Colter, saddled with a character name that would be more at home in that Ready To Rumble videogame) has sacked him in favour of a manager who's not as afraid of putting him up for a title fight and there's this...girl hanging around the gym these days. Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) is a thirty one year old waitress dreaming of boxing glory, with enviable self-belief but no training.

Frank don't train girls, as he tells her near continually but Maggie don't take no for an answer. With kindly janitor and ex-fighter Eddie 'Scrap-Iron' Dupris showing the lass a few pointers, eventually Frank is worn down and takes her under his wing. With Frank's expert tutelage and Maggie's iron will they soon rise to the top of their game, with all the financial and less tangible rewards that such endeavours entail. The movie isn't really about the boxing matches as much as it's about the characters both inside and outside the squared circle, especially the growing respect and father / daughter dynamic Frank and Maggie end up sharing.

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It's no great surprise that Frank's stoic and gruff persona is hiding some deep seated pains stemming from his estrangement from his daughter and a few other events that it would be cruel for me to relate, as it would deprive a prospective viewer of the delicious delight of seeing these facts gradually uncovered as the layers of Frank's character are slowly unveiled in ways little short of masterful. With less experienced and talented hands both behind and in front of the camera (although Eastwood's in both locations, so perhaps a shade of redundancy in that statement) there's a good chance that this could slide into grossly overblown sentimentality and overblown histrionics, but Eastwood keeps a vice-like grip on proceedings keeping a strong but understated emotional centre of the sort that's rarely seen in any film, let alone what's still a fairly major Hollywood release.

In the lead performance Eastwood is remarkable, as the director he's exemplary, and the combination of both is majestic. Moodily lit with often as much shadow as light, he brings a welcome touch of dramatic cinematography to settings that could easily have become bland. Rumblings of likely Oscars in umpteen categories abound and they'd be deserved in a way that few could argue with. While Paul Haggis' screenplay is an adaptation of fight manager and cutman Jerry Boyd's short story collection Rope Burns, he also has to take a goodly proportion of the credit for crafting the material into a progression that unveils the cores of his characters with the precision of Maggie's jabs and the power of one of her haymakers.

Hilary Swank came to most of the movie world's attention in 1999's Boys Don't Cry as a gender bending youngster earning plaudit after plaudit. While she's certainly kept busy, the biggest appearance on the radar of late has been The Core, which isn't exactly the best calling card you can leave. While there's perhaps a moment of early doors doubt stemming from Maggie's southern drawl that this could quickly fall into some 'feisty working class kid' stereotype this soon fades as it's apparent that not only is Maggie single mindedly pursing her dream she has a persona as complex and nuanced as he co-star, and the 'star' part of that last clause is certainly deserved. Subtle when demanded and brutal when in the boxing matches, shot with such bone crunching force as to impinge on Fight Club, Swank proves to be a lead contender for the best actress gongs and ought to serve as a deserved direct pass to the Hollywood A-list.

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Always a reliable barometer of a film's quality, is Morgan Freeman. Seemingly never one to turn down a job offer, if he's saddled with a role in a dire movie you get a dire, near monotonic parroting of the script. See Dreamcatcher for a prime example. Well, actually don't see Dreamcatcher, under any circumstances. Actually if someone even thinks about offering you the opportunity to see Dreamcatcher dole out a swift smack to the chops and sprint away from the miscreant as fast as your legs are capable of perambulating. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, if the old chap is given a suitably meaty role in a halfway decent movie he'll happily do his best to act everyone else of the screen, and he gives such a performance here. Were it not for two remarkable lead performances he would have stolen the show, as it stands he's just providing one of the best supporting performances seen in some time. Scraps may have lost an eye and be mopping up other people's blood for a living but he's made his peace with life, but he's still got his dignity. His narration of events will remind many of The Shawshank Redemption, sharing the same gravitas and quality of the prior work.

Million Dollar Baby is the sort of movie it's very easy to run out of superlatives for. In the interests of balance I've been trying to think of negative things to say about it and the best I can manage is that the title seems a bit silly. You could argue that the Fitzgerald family members are far too horrible a group of people to exist in real life, too self centred, unfeeling and one dimensional. It would be nice if no-one like that existed, but as we all eventually find out to our cost they do, in vast, irritating legions. Some people in life are one sided, or we only meet them for long enough to perceive that side and in a movie that exudes so much quality dwelling on such issues seems petty.

In this game it's easy to become jaded, watching so many movies and analysing them in such depth. To be honest there weren't that many movies I found myself able to truly call great over the course of last year. Many really, really good ones, but few with the emotional impact of Lost in Translation or the grandeur and scale of The Lord of the Rings. This year seems to be promising better things, with two such impeccable movies in as many weeks with the sublime 2046 and now the stunning Million Dollar Baby. Calling it the best boxing film ever made may sound trite but considering the strength of the field it far from it. Better than Raging Bull? Let's just say they could go fifteen rounds and leave no clear winner on points.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 5/5 TippyMarks.

Clint Eastwood
Cast list:
Clint Eastwood (Frankie Dunn)
Hilary Swank (Maggie Fitzgerald)
Morgan Freeman (Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris)
Jay Baruchel (Danger Barch)
Mike Colter (Big Willie Little)
Lucia Rijker (Billie 'The Blue Bear')
Brian F. O'Byrne (Father Horvak)