Sunday, March 20, 2005

Million Dollar Baby

Million Dollar Baby
Directed by Clint Eastwood
2004, rated PG-13
4 stars

When Clint Eastwood wants to make a film, then Clint Eastwood makes a film. He’s been an extremely successful actor, from the TV series “Rawhide” in 1959, to A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966), to the major Oscar winner Unforgiven (1992), right up to Space Cowboys in 2000. Eastwood has also directed several major hits, such as Mystic River in 2003, and produced as well as composed the scores for several of the movies he’s acted in. Thus, it came as a fairly big surprise when his newest idea for a film was initially turned down by Warner Brothers. Apparently, there had been too many boxing films made recently. The Hurricane (1999), Ali (2001), and Girlfight (2000) had already covered the boxing theme, and there just wasn’t room for one more—so thought Warner Brothers. How wrong they were. Eastwood pushed forward with his film, and convinced Warner Brothers to split the cost, and the risk, with Lakeshore Entertainment, went ahead with Million Dollar Baby, and won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, as a result.

Clint Eastwood also stars in the film as boxing manager and trainer Frankie Dunn. Frankie owns a training gym, filled with would-be boxers and punching bags. Frankie’s friend Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a half-blind, once-great fighter, works as janitor at the gym, giving subtle encouragement and kindness to the underdogs who come across his path. Such is the case with Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank). All Maggie wants is to be a fighter, and to have Frankie be her trainer and manager. After months of persistence and endurance through Frankie’s stiff rejections, Maggie finally convinces him to take her on. Battling her way through younger, fitter, more experienced fighters, and the problems in her family life, Maggie begins to work her way to the top of the boxing world. Frankie’s admiration slowly grows into fatherly love, and he begins to see Maggie more as a surrogate daughter than as a prize fighter.

Swank’s performance as Maggie is excellent. After putting on nearly 20 pounds of muscle for the role and undergoing hours of rigorous training, Swank immerses herself in the role completely, and really deserves the Oscar she won for Best Actress. Her determined stare and calculating approach really brings her character to life. Freeman and Eastman are also good in their own ways, but really only serve as backup for Swank, who completely steals the show. Jay Baruchel also makes a great comic relief as Danger, the hilarious little guy with big dreams.

Eastwood’s boxing-match sequences give him a chance to show off his stuff. With the camera sometimes drawn back to show the whole ring with excited audience, sometimes up close with the boxers’ struggle, and sometimes observant from the side as a member of the cheering fans, each shot draws the audience into that world of sweat and violence. Outside the rink, however, Eastwood tends to be a little heavy-handed with the metaphor. The dark, moody lighting which continually shows only half of any person’s face is so obviously symbolic that it diminishes the effect of the attempted message. It happens so often in the film that it makes you think Eastwood didn’t quite know how to get the stage lights to work.

The theme, although at times fairly typical, has its unique moments, and culminates in a thoroughly surprising twist. The ultimate ending, however, has a rather deflated air, with a weak summary, and blandly ambiguous final shot. Overall, however, the film is enjoyable to watch, with attractions for feminists and boxing fans—or feminist boxing fans—alike. This is Clint Eastwood’s baby, and that’s definitely worth something, if not the full million.

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