January 14, 2005

Million Dollar Baby

Directed by Clint Eastwood Starring Eastwood, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

For all its train-wreck brutality, boxing dependably delivers knockout entertainment that has viewers reflexively dodging punches and vicariously experiencing an adrenaline rush. True champions among boxing films - such as the biographical Raging Bull, Ali, and the inspirational first Rocky - are almost not about the sport. Yet the identification with characters and their against-all-odds struggles intensify viewers' reactions to every blow thrown in the protagonists' faces.

In Million Dollar Baby, director Clint Eastwood supplies the expected series of routine set pieces like those seen in Girlfight. But a surprisingly sentimental final round advances the film to somewhat of a B-movie masterpiece.

Eastwood's character, Frankie Dunn, is a predictably world-weary trainer whose chip on the shoulder stems from an estrangement from his daughter, an old pal's injury, and losing a pupil to a hotshot manager. Frankie begrudgingly takes under his wing Hilary Swank's feisty underdog Maggie, who has left her trailer-trash family and forages leftovers from a table-waiting job in order to pursue her elusive dream. Morgan Freeman's Scrap tends Frankie's gym and also lends his unmistakable deep voice to narrate the film as if it were a sequel to The Shawshank Redemption.

Million Dollar Baby is a throwback to smaller 1950s' matinee flicks usually shown as double-bills alongside expensive star vehicles. It's an accessible, solid story without any Michael Bay music-video slickness or art-film pretensions. Eastwood is a wildly inconsistent filmmaker, but he seems to be at top form when he is working within the confines of a discernable genre and resisting its clich├ęs as with Unforgiven. Million Dollar Baby is not entirely flawless in that regard, and there is no short supply of stock one-dimensional opponents answering the bell in and out of the ring. But with the gradual development of a surrogate father-daughter relationship between Frankie and Maggie, the film steadily transcends conventional expectations.

Eastwood not only drops a few uncustomary tears on screen, but he strikes some of the most intimate and tender notes in his directorial work to date. He locates the heart of this character-driven piece by employing an earnest, minimalist style and a contemplative score that he composed himself, rather than resorting to typical low-angle hero shots and soaring musical cues. Maggie's against-the-ropes personal setback in the final act doesn't register as manipulative, but it will leave few viewers unmoved.

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