Attentively made and impeccably acted, "Million Dollar Baby" is both a classic boxing picture and an earnest attempt to reckon with some serious human issues.
By JOSHUA TANZER
There's something about boxing a.k.a. the most barbaric sport on earth that the camera loves.
Boxing which, it has been pointed out, is the only sport whose object is to cause brain damage to an opponent still has something special. It pits two people, unequipped and unadorned, in a one-on-one war of pure skill and bravery. That simple. It can be abhorred and admired at the same time.
|MILLION DOLLAR BABY|
|Written by: Paul Haggis.|
Adapted from the book "Rope Burns" by: F.X. Toole.
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, Jay Baruchel, Mike Colter, Lucia Rijker, Brian F. O'Byrne, Anthony Mackie, Margo Martindale, Riki Lindhome, Michael Pena.
Cinematography: Tom Stern.
Edited by: Joel Cox.
Music by: Clint Eastwood.
Related links: Official site
And maybe that's why there are more fine boxing movies than baseball, football, basketball and hockey movies combined. "Raging Bull" and "Rocky" are the obvious ones, of course. But I can also think of a short animated film that was the first thing that really made me appreciate the talent and intensity that go into this sport by showing a bout through the fighter's own eyes. It was sheer adrenaline on screen.
So it would be hard for "Million Dollar Baby" to go wrong, especially when the one strapping on the gloves is an eats-nails-for-breakfast Hilary Swank. It's a three-person drama about an over-the-hill manager, Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood); a long-ago contender named Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman), who now cleans up around the gym; and the fierce but undeveloped fighter Maggie (Swank), who just won't go away in spite of the old man's insistence that he "don't train girls."|
This description alone is enough to telegraph a lot of the film's punches. The plucky pugilist and the crusty curmudgeon have plenty to teach and learn from each other as well as opponents to plaster to the mat. In fact, Maggie's one-punch rampage through the ranks of female boxers is so Tyson-like that you're waiting for her glass jaw to make itself apparent at the least opportune moment. But that surely can't happen before the big, inevitable title bout that grows closer with every summarily smacked-down opponent.
Still, there is at least one big surprise on the road to the title. The last third of the movie goes somewhere very different from everything before it, and suddenly we're in very personal territory rather than boxing territory. (The less revealed about this turn of events, the better for the uninitiated.)
"Million Dollar Baby" is a very strong movie not only impeccably acted but also demonstrating Eastwood's directorial skill with his films' look and pacing. It has many of the cinematic strengths of 2003's "Mystic River" without that film's awkward plot and ultimate betrayal of the audience. This film has a firm grasp of where it wants to go, a deeper sense of its characters, and a tight grip on the emotional reins.
And yet, it's less than a masterpiece. It's a manipulative movie or maybe it's manipulations are just a little too obvious and it feels a bit cobbled together. Based on a short-story collection, "Rope Burns" by F.X. Toole, the movie seems to pull in elements from a number of different stories that don't all fit together or get a fair realization.|
The biggest square peg is the Eastwood character's religiosity, which we are reminded of several times in a buildup to the spiritual crisis that the old trainer must face at the end. In a very simple, genuine scene near the beginning of the movie, the old man creakily kneels at his bedside to pray, showing a rather touching personal intimacy with God. But later, we see several scenes in which he seems to go to church only out of habit and spends the time just trying to annoy the priest. It seems like a character out of another story the one about the guy who likes to heckle the Lord, rather than the guy who feels his devotion deeply. It's as if the writer, mechanically fulfilling an obligation to show the man in church a couple times, decided to have some fun with it. Too much fun.
Still, these are small-beer complaints about a big-beer movie. "Million Dollar Baby" is quite a one-two combination both a well-made genre flick and an earnest shot at humanizing some serious issues.
|FEBRUARY 5, 2005|
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