One of this year’s major award contenders, Clint Eastwood’s 25th film as director tells the story of a washed-up boxing trainer (Eastwood) and the female fighter (Hilary Swank) who asks him to manage her. Morgan Freeman co-stars. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.
Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) is an ageing boxing trainer and manager. He trains his fighters at The Hit Pit, the backstreet gymnasium he owns and runs with the help of his old friend, Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman). Frankie’s management career has not been a successful one and he’s pinned his last hope on a potential contender called Big Willie Little (Mike Colter), who has just been offered a chance at the title. Willie wants his shot but Frankie is cautious and tells him he’s still a few fights away from being ready.
On his way home from one of Willie’s fights, Frankie is approached by Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a thirty-one year old waitress from a poor background. She tells him she boxes and asks him if he’ll train her. Frankie laughs at her but he comes to work the next day to find her punching a bag. Too strapped for cash to turn down her gym fees, Frankie lets her work out but studiously ignores her.
It comes as a shock to Frankie, but not to Eddie, when Willie finds himself another manager, one who can put more money behind him and who is prepared to give him his title shot. Frankie is devastated by the betrayal and he’s on the verge of selling up and retiring when Maggie asks him again to train her. He’s still not thrilled at the prospect – to Frankie, female boxing is a freak show, not a sport – but, without Willie, he’s a little more receptive. Despite his misgivings, he agrees to take the woman on.
Million Dollar Baby is a boxing picture in the sense that Mystic River is a detective thriller and Unforgiven is a western. Rather than make a genre movie, Clint Eastwood has used the conventions of the genre to make an intimate character piece that explores painful corners of the human heart. It’s what he does best, the kind of film that most suits his simple, no-nonsense directing style.
Eastwood does like things simple. Million Dollar Baby started shooting in June, wrapped in July and was in American cinemas in December. You’ll find no fancy camera tricks in it and no concessions for audiences who expect MTV editing and pacing. Not that there’s anything wrong with stylistic filmmaking if it’s done well but so many films these days are a rush of sound and images that it’s a relief to watch something as cool and restrained as Million Dollar Baby. For much of the movie, you could hear a pin drop in the cinema, yet it’s as electrifying to watch as Kill Bill.
If Eastwood shoots quickly, he doesn’t cut corners. This is a beautiful film to look at and listen to. Cinematographer Tom Stern, who shot Eastwood’s last two films, allows us to discover things for ourselves and pick out details in the shadows, while Clint Eastwood himself provides a quietly effective soundtrack that evokes emotions without demanding them (a lot of people don’t realise he’s written his own scores since The Bridges Of Madison County).
Don’t let me give you the idea that Million Dollar Baby is a slog. It’s intelligent and artful but it’s also a highly entertaining film that’s funny, touching and sometimes rousing. A lot of the fun is around the edges. Subplots are becoming a forgotten art – today’s films rarely have time for background – but secondary story threads can add greatly to a film’s atmosphere and minor characters can add welcome humour without compromising the central story. Eastwood knows this – remember the convenience store owner in Mystic River and the conversations with James Woods in True Crime? – and he adds immeasurably to the film by making the Hit Pit a living, breathing place populated by colourful fighters. I loved the way the boxer called Danger (Jay Baruchel) was given a complete story of his own rather than simply played for comedy.
Paul Haggis’s excellent script is based on Rope Burns, a collection of short stories by “FX O’Toole”, really a former boxing manager named Jerry Boyd. He obviously knew what he was writing about and the characters, the locations and the details of the fight business ring true. The sport is seen through the eyes of someone who has no illusions about its brutality, cruelty and corruption but loves it all the same. After Frankie’s initial reservations, the female angle is simply accepted. This isn’t a feminist film like Girlfight and there’s no big issue about whether women should box – women do box and the film demonstrates there’s little difference between the male and female sports, certainly no less savagery.
The three central performances are extraordinary. In the wrong part and with the wrong director, Hilary Swank can be goofy but here she’s like a force of nature. Like Charlize Theron in Monster, she’s become the character she’s playing. Morgan Freeman does his best work for a long time, playing a character who seems to be comic relief at first (his interplay with Eastwood is frequently hilarious) but who proves surprisingly complex and instrumental to the story.
Eastwood himself has never been better. More than thirty years ago, in Magnum Force, he muttered, ” A man’s gotta know his limitations” and that’s advice he’s heeded well. No other star is better aware of who he is and what he can do. In Million Dollar Baby, as in Play Misty For Me, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven, Eastwood the director makes brilliant use of Eastwood the star, making a fresh new character out of the familiar steely glare, the brittle humour and the resentful vulnerability of an ageing action hero. As a portrait of an old man coming to terms with his mistakes and his regrets, his performance bears comparison to Paul Newman’s work in Nobody’s Fool. People will come out of Million Dollar Baby talking about Swank and she’ll win the awards (deservedly so) but further viewings will reveal the subtlety of what Eastwood does here.
I’m treading on eggshells writing this review because I don’t want to spoil certain plot developments or drop hints that might spoil them. Suffice it to say that this is not a traditional, Rocky-style boxing film that leads up to a climactic fight. It’s a story about people and what marvellously observed people they are. Few filmmakers look past the surface of their characters. Eastwood sees into their souls. He knows what makes them tick, what they live for, what haunts them and what will break their hearts.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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