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Published: 2005-05-02 - 15:05:00
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Million Dollar Baby Review

By Joe Lozito

The Fight Stuff

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Every once in a while Clint Eastwood will still surprise you. For every "Unforgiven" (still his reigning masterpiece) there is "True Crime", "Blood Work" and "Space Cowboys". While I thought "Mystic River" was a good film, I thought its over-the-top performances and shades of black and white made its praise overrated. "Million Dollar Baby", the story of the relationship between a 30ish female boxer and an over-the-hill trainer, is easily Mr. Eastwood's best film since "Unforgiven". Mr. Eastwood's hand at direction has never been more sure. The film is made with a classical style and, with Baby", Mr. Eastwood and his cast earn all the accolades they have coming to them.

It's no coincidence that Mr. Eastwood also wrote the simple, appropriate music for the film; he's not making a movie here, he's composing. The scenes in the film have a rhythm which is seldom seen in a mainstream Hollywood release. It takes its time. The relationships that form between Mr. Eastwood's world-weary Frankie Dunn, Ms. Swank's eager Maggie Fitzgerald and Morgan Freeman's old school boxer Scrap are beautifully textured. Secrets and past regrets are withheld at first, but they are revealed organically and are never easily resolved.

Ms. Swank's performance is heartbreaking. There's a certain poetry in that she got her big break in the near-unwatchable "The Next Karate Kid" and here gives her best performance yet, besting her Oscar turn in "Boys Don't Cry", as a different kind of pugilist. Ms. Swank spent time living in a car with her mother while trying to make it in Hollywood. When she says "you're all I got, Frankie", we believe it.

Mr. Eastwood and Mr. Freeman are two actors in their golden years still working at the top of their respective talents. While they've both done turns on these characters before, there's something even more lived-in in these performances. Mr. Freeman's voice, in particular, has an extra note of grit to it, perhaps taking a cue from Mr. Eastwood, who, conversely, lets his trademark scowl make way for a heartwarming smile or two.

During the final act of the film, Mr. Eastwood, working from a subtly poetic script by Paul Haggis (from the F.X. Toole stories "Rope Burns"), unveils the true colors of his film. "Baby" is not a boxing movie at all. It's about these three characters. It's about life and death and choices and regret. It's ironic that a man who used to specialize in characters that dispensed frontier justice now, in his later years, excels at making films without easy solutions.

Mr. Haggis' script walks a tightrope above emotional manipulation (Maggie's family is a little too evil, as is one of her key boxing opponents). This is not an easy film. "Million Dollar Baby" is going to make you angry. It's going to frustrate you and make you question why you set foot in the theater. We're spoiled as audiences. We want to see these people get punished for their sins. But I think this proves Mr. Eastwood's point. We're used to the simple Bruckheimer Blockbuster endings - everything wrapped up in a neat package, everyone avenged, bad guys getting their comeuppance. But anyone who has lived for more than five years (except maybe Paris Hilton) knows that's not how life is. Life is unfair; it's full of disappointment and regret. If you think you can "protect yourself" and "be careful", you're wrong. There are other factors at work in this world. Fate plays its hand - sometimes with you, sometimes against you. Like life, there are some small triumphs in "Baby", and we should take some comfort in them. But Mr. Eastwood is challenging his audience. So do ya feel lucky, punk? Well? Do ya?

What did you think?

Movie title Million Dollar Baby
Release year 2004
MPAA Rating R
Our rating
Summary Just when you thought "Rocky" was the only way to do a boxing movie. Hilary Swank proves that "Boys Don't Cry" was no fluke, and Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman prove that they can be more interesting talking about socks (literally) than most actors can be during a typical 'Oscar Clip.'
View all articles by Joe Lozito
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