She got muscle

Million Dollar Baby

Clint Eastwood is on the ropes in the fight for an Oscar.

Clint Eastwood is on the ropes in the fight for an Oscar.

Rated 4.0

Retired California State University, Sacramento, English professor Charles Gregory, who has taken me to the proverbial mat in the Letters section of this very publication, has a theory about working film critics: We see so many bad and very bad movies that sometimes we maybe dig a little too deep into our thesauruses for praise when a good, solid movie comes along. Of course, I do not subscribe to that observation—at least, not in public. But Gregory and his words did creep to mind as I watched Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (he both directs and stars) after its early Oscar buzz and recent award nominations and wins often were punctuated with references to “masterpiece.”

Million Dollar Baby is a masterful handling of some very generic content that embraces both fable and melodrama. It is a relationship and love story set in the world of boxing that heads in one direction and then suddenly switches stances to do battle in yet another arena. It is about bonding and estrangement, fulfillment and pain, guilt and redemption, desperation and commitment, and inspiration and exasperation. It is a gritty, funny, moving tale of taking risks, taking stands and facing the consequences. And it alternately feels way too familiar and surprises us as it stakes out its thematic territory and then takes a huge, provocative risk of its own.

Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) was one of the best “cut men” in professional boxing. He is not a stranger to any of the several different levels of flesh that so often rip and gush blood during a fight. He also trained and managed some very skilled pugilists during a lifetime of workouts and bouts. But he has become a victim of his own advice to “always protect yourself.” His fighters move on to other handlers when Frankie hesitates to graduate them to championship matches, and he now runs an aged Los Angeles gym called the Hit Pit with help from retired ring warrior Scrap (Morgan Freeman), who is the gym’s live-in caretaker and mentor to all underdogs.

Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) is a 31-year-old escapee from the Ozarks who tends tables in a Venice diner. She shows up at the Pit determined to train hard and box herself into a new life. She is willing to do whatever it takes. She just needs to be nurtured by someone who believes in her as much as she believes in herself. Frankie turns her down at first. “I don’t train girls,” he flatly tells her. He wants no part of what he thinks has become a public freak show. But he is gradually impressed with her conviction and finally takes her under his wing, and they develop a sense of family that only partially prepares them for the personal and professional conflicts that face them.

Paul Haggis, who has penned TV scripts for everything from The Love Boat to L.A. Law, adapted the screenplay from Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner, a collection of short stories based on experiences of the late “cut man” Jerry Boyd (pen name: F.X. Toole). The characters and dialogue bob and weave between Fat City authenticity, Rocky blue-collar romanticism and movie-of-the-week contrivance as the film pokes at the underbelly of society. Still, the film feels more heartfelt than manipulative. On the downside, it telegraphs too many punches; the denizens of the Hit Pit are more clichéd than memorable; and the thread involving Frankie’s alienation from his daughter is underdeveloped and flirts with banality, as he ceremoniously takes his weekly returned letters and stores them in a box in a closet.

The interior photography makes such emphatic use of darkness and light that it sometimes feels like a black-and-white film rather than a color one and has a film-noir resonance. Eastwood, an ardent jazz fan, allows the dialogue to riff rather than stack line by line, and the soundtrack features the melancholy guitar work of the talented Bruce Forman.

Eastwood’s performance feels starchy at first, but he seems to grow more comfortable with his crusty character and weathered, hoarse voice as the story progresses. And his verbal sparring with a priest, after Frankie’s daily visits for 23 years to Catholic Mass, excellently captured the plight of a man struggling with lapsed belief with a dash of humor. Freeman, with his personification of benevolence fully enshrined during his stint as God in 2003’s Bruce Almighty, narrates the story with fluid philosophical pondering that ranges from the sublime to the obvious. And Swank, beefed up almost beyond recognition since her role in Boys Don’t Cry, muscles her way toward her second Best Actress Oscar.

“What the mind can conceive, the body can achieve,” says one of the many signs on the Hit Pit walls. That may be more motivational ruse than truth. It’s a point that Million Dollar Baby certainly illustrates but nonetheless faces toe to toe and matches blow for blow.