I’ll admit right off that I wasn’t particularly thrilled about the prospect of watching a Clint Eastwood boxing movie. The film, which stars Hillary Swank and Morgan Freeman, in addition to Eastwood as an over-the-hill boxing trainer, has had a lot of advanced buzz, but I just couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to watch a couple of old Hollywood geezers teach Hillary Swank — in what I could only imagine to be a reprise of her Boys Don’t Cry role — how to beat up on other muscled women. I pictured a female version Rocky, with bombastic, over-the-top anthems and Dirty Harry offering cliched grunts while Morgan Freeman provided the tritely inspirational voiceovers.
What’s so astonishing about Million Dollar Baby, though, is that it — for three-fourths of the movie, anyway — is mostly what you would expect. The plotline is older than Clint Eastwood himself; Morgan Freeman - no surprise - provides both the moral center and the voiceovers; and Hillary Swank’s Maggie Fitzgerald isn’t that far off from her Brandon Teena role — there is nary a feminine bone in her. Yet, it’s the most exhilarating, fresh, and powerful recycled storyline I’ve ever seen in film. Clint Eastwood doesn’t find new ways to approach his narrative; he somehow invigorates tired themes and recharges cliches, creating nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece, better even than Eastwood’s last film, Mystic River.
The story follows Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), a languishing boxing trainer/manager, whose clients tend to bolt for more lucrative offers as soon as they near a title fight. Enter Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank), one of those persistently spunky, street-fighting types from the Hills of the Ozarks, who is supposed to be too old, at 32, to be trained. Her slovenly family is the poster child for welfare reform, and the only respite she has from stealing the leftovers off the tables on which she waits is Frankie’s downscale boxing gym, the Hit Pit.
After some initial reluctance, and some added encouragement from his only friend, Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris (Freeman), an ex-fighter who lives and works in the gym, Frankie takes Maggie under his wing. Eddie provides the film’s grizzled heart, and Eastwood — the director — puts Freeman’s narration talents to good use for the first time since The Shawshank Redemption.
The results of Million Dollar Baby, up until the final act, are predictable, though there is much joy to be had in the details. The final one-fourth of the movie I won’t betray, except to say that things turn dark, and in lesser hands than Eastwood, could’ve morphed into a lame Meryl Streep weeper. Instead, Eastwood throws the audience a sucker punch, and when we emerge from the blow, we are in a different movie, but one no less exceptional.
The screenplay, adapted by Paul Haggis from a series of short stories by a former cutman and fight manager, F.X. Toole, weaves together several vivid characters, including a mentally-retarded gym-rat, Danger (“Undeclared“‘s quirky Jay Barachel, showing some real acting chops), and a punkish bruiser (Anthony Mackie), whose presence simply calls out for comeuppance. The screenplay, like Eastwood’s directing style in Million Dollar Baby, owes much to Hemingway; the scenes are taut, economical, and spare, and everything is tinted in shades of Catholic guilt.
What’s remarkable about Million Dollar Baby is just how easy Eastwood makes it look. My own personal preferences may lie toward the Wes Anderson/Charlie Kaufmann style of movie — lots of cute nods to the audience, quirky characters, and stylistic flourishes — but Eastwood’s approach cuts out all the affected bullshit, relying on good old fashioned storytelling. There are no camera tricks in Million Dollar Baby, no special effects, and no anthemized soundtracks; in fact, besides a few piano tinkles and some quiet strings here and there (Eastwood did his own score), the movie lacks music altogether; the emotional punches he throws don’t need Coldplay or Randy Newman to manipulate your heartstrings. Eastwood simply points his camera and films; and what he achieves, at age 74, is the best boxing film of all time.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.
Million Dollar Baby / Dustin Rowles
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()