Thursday, February 3, 2005

Here's a movie review, the first four-star movie I've seen in 2005: Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby."

"She knew one thing about herself. She was trash.” With that line, which says so much in a few short syllables, I had a feeling I was going to love Clint Eastwood’s tight, taut and devastating boxing movie, “Million Dollar Baby.”

That’s because it feels real, lived in and substantial in a way so few movies seem to these days. “Million Dollar Baby” lands a knockout punch to join the pantheon of great boxing movies from “Rocky” to “Raging Bull,” but in the end, it’s also so much more than that.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, “Million Dollar Baby” stands as a highlight in Eastwood’s legendary career, and it’s his best directed movie since “Unforgiven.”
It’s the tale of boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), and his janitor/best friend Scrap (Morgan Freeman), who run The Hit Pit, a rundown gym in the back corners of Los Angeles.

Boxers come and go through Frankie’s gym, where he trains them to the best of his ability only to find them leave for flashier management in the end. Enter Maggie (Hilary Swank), a thirty-something waitress from a white-trash background with dreams of becoming a women’s boxing champion.

Frankie refuses to have anything to do with her — “I don’t train girls,” he says with that Eastwoodian snarl — but she’s tenacious, and before he realizes it, Frankie becomes her trainer, manager, and substitute father figure. Maggie has the stuff to take her all the way to the top, and it’s her shot. But fate might keep her from making that final play. And I’ll say no more.

With the language of a fine short story, “Million Dollar Baby” uses boxing as a metaphor for life. Freeman’s character narrates the movie, and his warm velvety voice is as welcome here as it was in the same fashion in “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Indeed, redemption is a powerful part of this movie, too.

Once “Dirty Harry,” Eastwood has slowly been reinventing himself as a filmmaker who dissects with a keen eye the true horror and cost of violence. Unlike last year’s “Mystic River,” which I frequently found manipulative and overwrought, “Million Dollar Baby” is spare, lean and ultimately far more effective.

The movie takes a startling turn about two-thirds of the way through, and it might leave some audience members behind. While it’ll undoubtedly be controversial, even offensive to some, the final act is what raises “Million Dollar Baby” from boxing movie to another level. Don’t let someone give its climax away to you — it’s unforgettable.

Eastwood, at 74, has been a legend longer than I’ve been alive, but he continues to improve in his autumn. His directing has grown immensely confident, yet warm and thoughtful. He takes a familiar story of the underdog made good, and brings it to unfamiliar places, and tackles a topical moral dilemma that hits all the right buttons.

I may have a soft spot for “Unforgiven” as his best movie, just because it’s got cowboys, but it’d be hard to not consider “Million Dollar Baby” a strong second place.

As Maggie, Swank might just have punched her way to her second Academy Award for Best Actress (the first was in 2000 for “Boys Don’t Cry”). She takes a worn-out idea — the spunky athlete who won’t give up and won’t be pushed around — and in subtle, effective ways makes her fresh, likable and worth rooting for.

But Eastwood’s character is the emotional core of “Million Dollar Baby,” a grim, haunted figure whose relationship with Maggie reawakens him. Eastwood’s never been a flashy actor, but in his way he tells more with the arch of an eyebrow than many actors do in an entire monologue. He won his second Best Actor Oscar nomination for his turn here. It’s great acting, and it looks easy.

Women’s boxing is at its core a pretty brutal sport, and Eastwood doesn’t flinch from showing the nasty side of it. The film is shrouded in literal darkness, with subdued colors.

Eastwood and Freeman’s characters have an easygoing charm, making you believe they’ve been cantankerous friends for decades. Their banter provides the film’s needed humor.

“Million Dollar Baby” goes to some pretty dark places, but it’s also the kind of movie that sparks debate and sticks with you long after the final image fades. It’ll break your heart in all the right places.
**** of four

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