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Million Dollar Baby


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Clint Eastwood – perhaps energized by the success of “Mystic River” – returns just in time for award season with another film of surprising power and grace. “Million Dollar Baby” is a boxing movie, and boxing movies are not routinely recognized for their originality. Eastwood understands this concept going in, and the result is a reassuring blend of cinematic storytelling that embraces expected cliché in order to allow the viewer to focus on the rich characterizations and emotional details of the director’s carefully crafted world. A spunky underdog from the wrong side of the tracks convinces a grizzled trainer to take her all the way to a championship bout. If this sounds like a stock plot from a bygone era, don’t be misled: Eastwood is mostly on his “A” game, and the result hits as hard as the title character.

Like his memorable restructuring/reiteration of cowboy myth in “Unforgiven,” Eastwood again retools audience expectations thanks to both an unhurried pace and an effortless sense of style. Playing faded trainer/gym owner Frank Dunn, Eastwood slips easily into the trappings of his iconic screen presence. Tired, tough, and temperate, Dunn has exercised perhaps too much caution since a long ago fight took the eye of his best friend Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman, providing another voiceover that flat out would not work if anybody else tried to deliver the lines). The two men pass most of their days looking over young fighters both talented and hopeless.

Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a poor waitress with drive and discipline that could outpace nearly any U.S. Marine, shows up one day and refuses to leave Dunn alone until he agrees to train her. Maggie recognizes something special in Frank, and it is merely a matter of time before the old salt is caught up in the thrill of teaching a gifted pupil. Against all odds, Maggie begins a meteoric ascent in the ring that offers Dunn a delectable taste of glory. As they spend more and more time together, a close relationship develops between Dunn and Maggie, and Eastwood underscores the bittersweet connection with a minor subplot that quietly reveals a broken bond between Dunn and his grown-up daughter, who refuses every letter he tries to send to her.

“Million Dollar Baby” has raised the ire of groups that feel Eastwood’s story devalues life (a devastating turn of events takes place during the course of the movie that completely refocuses all narrative concerns), but this misplaced suggestion fails to account for specific circumstances – driven by the fierce individuality and strength of the characters – and instead depends upon a sweeping generality. Ironically, Eastwood’s own conservative identity criss-crosses with several themes, and if any major element is worthy of criticism, it is the ham-fisted depiction of Maggie’s welfare-dependent family.

The plot point to which many object has appeared in other tales, and Eastwood as director and storyteller clearly respects the central trio (virtually the entire movie keeps them front and center) enough to always see them as unique persons. Not many mainstream moviemakers (Kubrick is one of the few who comes to mind) have been as willing as Eastwood to flirt with introspective self-doubt, personal failure, cruelty and despair. The beauty of “Million Dollar Baby” is that the film never goes too far down that path: it will surely not be mistaken for a feel-good movie, but it also refuses to succumb to total desolation.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/7/05.

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