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Million Dollar Baby   A-

Warner Bros. Pictures / Lakeshore Entertainment

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Paul Haggis (based on stories by F.X. Toole)
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman.

Review by Rob Vaux

It was probably only a matter of time before Clint Eastwood made a boxing movie. The sweet science is a perfect fit for his lyrical naturalism; the thrust and fade of sparring fighters are ideal for the sort of grand meditations that he has embraced over the last 15 years. And unlike many directors, he has the patience and insight to explore profound subtexts without disturbing the surface conventions. Million Dollar Baby is as good as he's ever been, largely because it allows us to find the beauty at its heart, rather than cramming it down our throats. Its story is strong and compelling, drawing us in with masterful power. And yet its underlying messages are equally strong, achieving understated intensity while doing most of their work from behind the scenes. To accomplish just one of these tasks is to make a good movie; to accomplish them all is damn near miraculous.

And it's a terrific boxing film as well, energized by an imaginative screenplay from Paul Haggis. The film stumbles only when it becomes too comfortable with its genre, producing some muddled subplots the detract from the central thrust. But they are only a few errant limbs; the trunk is something wondrous to behold. At its base is the doggedly optimistic Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a career waitress with an empty past and a hopeless future. Fighting is all she has, but she's over 30 and still raw, unable to afford even a modicum of professional training. Swank gives the character an affable, easy-to-please manner, hiding a will of pure steel beneath her Ozark smile. The casting is especially shrewd because she looks the part as few Hollywood glamour girls could. Stocky and well-toned, with an underclass grit that no stick-figure runway model can match, she sells every nuance of Maggie's character: from the boyish enthusiasm of her workouts to the quiet desperation that leads her to filch leftovers from her customers' plates.

It also makes her a brilliant foil for Eastwood's trainer/manager Frank Dunn, who grudgingly takes her under his wing. On the surface, he appears as nothing more than a standard-issue surly coot: Eastwood, old and getting older by the minute, has the expected array of grumpy witticisms and gravelly contempt for Maggie's dreams. But here too, Million Dollar Baby eschews convention, using the actor's trademark minimalism to slowly reveal the deep wounds behind Frank's gruff facade. He has a daughter who no longer speaks to him, despite the reams of letters he's sent after her. That chasm is all but equaled by his approach to his boxers, whom he protects so rigorously he's unable to perceive when they might be ready for the big time. Despite the chiding from his longtime partner Scrap (Morgan Freeman, in an Oscar-worthy turn), Frank holds Maggie at arm's length for much the same reason: he cannot forgive himself for his past sins, and refuses to compound them by adding another one to the list.

The two characters circle each other in a quietly mesmerizing dance, emulating the sport they love so much with their slow parries and feints. Eastwood draws the relationship out with meticulous care, establishing father-daughter ties without the cloying artifice of affectation. Million Dollar Baby takes an equally meticulous approach to the plot, as Maggie's growing success in the ring both assuages and exacerbates the duo's pain. The film's most devastating development is set up with such grace that you're hardly aware of it until it punches you in the face. Amid all that, Haggis' dialogue sparkles with both cleverness and depth, and the boxing details feel spot-on. Bursts of frenetic physical action punctuate the underlying narrative with uncanny rhythm, and prevent the drama from bogging down.

But the film's greatest asset is how it ties the passions of boxing with the characters' larger struggles, turning the underdog sports clichés into an intimate examination of the human heart. Though it remains dark and brooding, it has a surprisingly hopeful core; if Unforgiven expressed the certainty of damnation, then this is its perfect opposite, finding dignity and grace in even the bleakest moments of existence. Million Dollar Baby shines with the strength of true understanding, finding within its subject the riddles of life that every sports movie strives for, but only the best ever realize.

Review published 01.20.2005.

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