‘Million Dollar Baby’ a deserving contender for the Oscar
For the past four decades Clint Eastwood has a proven knack for directing stellar back-to-back movies. His first one-two punch came in 1976/77 with “The Outlaw Josey Wales” followed by “The Gauntlet.” “Pale Rider” and “Heartbreak Ridge” came in succeeding years (1985/86) and his powerhouse pair from 1992/1993 (“Unforgiven” and “A Perfect World”) not only proved Oscar worthy but established Eastwood as a director of unique and singular vision, shedding his “Dirty Harry” acting days to that of an elite status director — perhaps the best American director alive.
With his latest, “Million Dollar Baby” coming on the heels of 2003’s forceful “Mystic River,” Eastwood effectively knocks out any director challengers.
For about 90 minutes of “Million Dollar Baby” it appears that Eastwood is merely imprinting his trademark gritty individualism on the boxing movie formula. That Eastwood’s casting choices are always perfect (and at least half the battle in making an interesting film) allowing him to rely less on histrionics than restraint makes “Million Dollar Baby” a compelling enough journey in his typically fatalistic but nonetheless uplifting style.
Then comes a shocking turn in the films’ final third when and the story, as well as our emotional involvement, take on a whole new dimension. To reveal any details of this jolting detour in the story is to rob the audience of one of the great movie experiences in recent memory. I will say this: it’s not loud, offensive or provocative in any way. One critic, Michael Medved (who I very much respect) felt the film’s transition was heavy handed in its moral grandstanding. Not so.
Again, Eastwood’s restraint and gentle direction defies posturing and is ultimately more effective, leaving the audience quietly but profoundly reflective.
“Million Dollar Baby” relies on the trinity of grizzled boxing trainer and skanky gym owner Frankie, (Eastwood) his aging former student Scrap (Morgan Freeman) who lost an eye but not his insight over his 109 fight career and now works for his former manager, and the underdog “girly” fighter Maggie, (a wonderfully credible Hillary Swank). She’s self-proclaimed “trailer trash from the Ozarks,” who seeks Frankie’s expertise and won’t take no for an answer.
Though a slew of boxing movies have surfaced through the years and the story here for the most part is pretty predictable — the main characters ring with a rare authenticity. Frankie reads Yeats and studies Gaelic, Scrap likes holes in his stockings, and frugal Maggie eats her customer’s leftovers at her waitress job. The pacing and narrative are patient but never boring — a sign of a director’s confidence in his own direction, actors and story.
The side characters are a mixed bag — some Catholics may be taken aback by the prickly portrayal of a young Priest where Frankie attends Mass every day — his language and advice seem a little too unsympathetic at first.
“Million Dollar Baby” reflects its director: Stoic, assured, aware of its shortcomings, with a classic feel that never gets old.
Rated PG-13 for violence and mature themes.