What can be said about Clint Eastwood that hasn’t been said before?
That he’s American film’s last and best classicist, a 74-year-old director who’s aged better than a “Sideways” pinot noir? That his increasingly fearless and idiosyncratic choice of material has made him more of an independent filmmaker than half the people at Sundance? That he continues to find ways to surprise audiences yet remain inescapably himself? It’s all true, and never more so than in Eastwood’s latest, “Million Dollar Baby.”
Perhaps the director’s most touching, most elegiac work yet, “Million Dollar Baby” is a film that does both the expected and the unexpected, that has the nerve and the will to be as pitiless as it is sentimental. A tale of the power and cost of dreams set in the unforgiving world of professional boxing, it’s got some of the emotional daring of the great melodramas of Hollywood’s golden age.
“Million Dollar Baby” also reconfirms what “Mystic River” and its Oscars for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins made clear: that Eastwood, despite his legendarily no-nonsense style, has morphed into a gifted director of actors. It’s not just the exceptional work by co-stars Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman that stands out here, it’s Eastwood’s performance, in some ways the most nakedly emotional of his 50-year career.
Eastwood, who has perhaps the best eye in the business for the kinds of roles an aging star should be playing, is Frankie Dunn, a trainer and manager who owns a ramshackle gym in downtown Los Angeles all too appropriately named the Hit Pit.
Cantankerous as well as querulous, Dunn still manages a contender or two, but his reluctance to push his top man for a title fight speaks to a sense of pulling back, of disconnecting from life. He is painfully but, it seems, permanently estranged from his only child, a daughter, and he only goes to church to wind up the priest. Studying Gaelic is his sole pleasure and, with a single exception, ring rust has formed on his personal relationships.
That exception would be his right-hand man, Willie “Scrap Iron” Dupris (Freeman), an unflappable blind-in-one-eye former boxer who has run the Hit Pit day-to-day for 17 years. It’s Dupris’ extensive voice-over that gives us the context for the unfolding story, garnished with home truths about boxing.
Into this hermetic world comes Maggie Fitzgerald, a completely different type of person. A hard-scrabble young woman well aware of her white trash background, Maggie has focused her entire life on a single goal: having Frankie Dunn mold her into the best fighter she can be. Boxing, she says, is “the only thing I ever felt good doing,” and giving up on that feeling is out of the question.
Both physically and psychologically, Swank, who put on 17 pounds of muscle during three months of boxing training, inhabits this role as she has no other since “Boys Don’t Cry,” for which she won an Oscar. Her Maggie has a feral intensity that combines with a heartbreaking eagerness and a megawatt smile to devastating effect.
Maggie’s determination notwithstanding, Dunn, traditionalist that he is, does not believe in training women to box, calling it “the latest freak show out there.” He’s dismissive of her chances for success in the plainest language he can find. Of course, it’s a given, especially with the looming possibility of a surrogate father-daughter relationship, that Frankie will relent and take her on, but rather than being the end of their story, that is the merest beginning.
There’s nothing glib or trendy about “Million Dollar Baby”; the movie is in no hurry getting started, and it even takes a leisurely detour into the story of a fighter named Danger that it could have done without. But by the time Frankie and Maggie begin training together in earnest, we are completely invested in their story, willing to go with it no matter where it takes us.
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