A contender

Million Dollar Baby

Call me butch again, and I’ll rip your pacemaker out!

Call me butch again, and I’ll rip your pacemaker out!

Rated 5.0

Some Clint Eastwood films of late have been a little hokey. His 2003 supposed triumph, the overrated Mystic River, was three-quarters of a good movie wrapped up with a silly, predictable ending that betrayed the film. Don’t even get me started on the abysmal Blood Work (2002), where Clint directed himself to his most embarrassing screen presence since trading barbs with Burt Reynolds in City Heat 20 years ago.

Million Dollar Baby is a little hokey in spots. It has boxing-film clichés that would make Sylvester Stallone apologize and plot directions that would be right at home in your average episode of The Young and the Restless. It’s also Eastwood’s best film since Unforgiven (1992). There’s nothing wrong with hokey if it’s done right.

Clint plays Frankie Dunn, a gym owner and sometime boxing “cut man” who turns gushing battle wounds into mere trickles. Hanging around his gym one day, he meets Maggie (Hilary Swank), a 31-year-old eager boxer wannabe so impoverished she scavenges scraps of leftover meat at her waitress job. Maggie wants Frankie to be her coach, but he doesn’t coach girls. “Girlie, tough is not enough,” he snipes.

But Maggie is determined. She stays around the gym despite being told to leave, flicking away amateurishly at punching bags and aggravating Frankie to the point that he offers some advice. Before long, he’s managing her as she tears up the ranks of women’s boxing.

Million Dollar Baby has all the makings of a fine sports movie, but it has loftier ambitions. It’s peppered with some goofy characters that one would expect in a sports yarn, and the film embraces a sort of classic approach to the underdog story. Its technical achievements in the ring are impressive, and the sports clichés work because Eastwood knows how to play them to optimal effect. And just when it seems the film is heading toward Rocky-type glory, it takes an unexpected turn that requires the movie and its performances to transform into something completely different.

Swank, getting her best chance to show her chops since Boys Don’t Cry, is a sure Oscar contender for what she does with Maggie. Physically she’s a convincing boxer, making her performance tremendously impressive based on her ring work alone. In the final third of the film, she takes everything to another, much more complicated level.

Eastwood, his craggy profile becoming more impressive as the years pile on, puts forth a performance that works at every turn. Frankie gives him a character of wide emotional range, something Eastwood doesn’t often display. Even his best prior screen work, as the tortured soul William Munny in Unforgiven, required that raspy, one-note coolness he seems to have a patent on. With Frankie, he’s still raspy, but he runs the gamut of emotions like an old pro.

As Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupree, Frankie’s right-hand man at the gym, Morgan Freeman reunites with his Unforgiven costar, and it’s fun to watch them verbally spar. A look at Freeman’s recent history reveals that this great actor hasn’t had a meaty role worthy of his talent since 1995’s Se7en. Scrap-Iron ends that drought.

Throw in a nice score composed by Eastwood himself, and you have a film that easily ranks with his best. Sure, it’s a bit obvious and contrived on the sports side, but really, what great sports film isn’t? Besides, as the final act unfolds, Million Dollar Baby reveals that it isn’t really a sports movie after all. It’s a moving tale of loss and redemption with an appealing, sports-movie veneer.