A film review by Craig J. Koban
MILLION DOLLAR BABY
2004, R, 122 mins.
2004, R, 122 mins.
Frankie Dunn: Clint Eastwood / Maggie Fitzgerald: Hilary Swank
/ Scrap: Morgan Freeman
Eastwood, at least not too long ago, was forever associated with his Man
With No Name persona from the Spaghetti Westerns and Dirty Harry from
the series of police procedurals about the hard-nosed investigator. Those
films, like THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY and the first DIRTY HARRY picture,
are classic entertainments and vintage Eastwood, to be sure. However, it's become abundantly clear over the course of the
last decade that Eastwood has developed into one of the premiere directors of
his generation that rightfully deserves recognition along with the finest of
Eastwood attempted to break free
from his on-screen characters with his first directorial effort in 1971, the
underrated PLAY MISTY FOR ME. Since
then he has directed many works, twenty-four to be precise.
Many of them were commercial successes, but Eastwood still never really
garnered much attention as a serious artist.
With BIRD in 1988 and later followed by the Oscar winning UNFORGIVEN in
1992, Eastwood was finally starting to receive the accolades that he rightfully
deserved. MYSTIC RIVER, my pick for
the best film of 2003, was the finest work of his career.
Now comes his latest, his 25th film as a director and 57th as a
performer - MILLION DOLLAR BABY. It
may not garner the levels of greatness that RIVER achieved, but BABY is
nevertheless indicative of Eastwood’s assured, effortless, simple, and
masterful hand as a director. BABY is a great film, but what many have seemed
to have overseen is just how good Eastwood, the actor, is in it.
Eastwood’s last decade in films has been a mixed bag, for the most part. Some of his films have been successful commercial works that had instant appeal, like 2000’s very amiable SPACE COWBOYS. Some of his other works were both well respected by movie goers and critics alike, such as 1995’s THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY and 1997’s ABSOLUTE POWER. In 2002 he hit a bit of a lull with the somewhat inert thriller BLOOD WORK, a passably engrossing film that was not quite suggestive of the exceptional efforts Eastwood was capable of. MYSTIC RIVER dispelled those notions and now MILLION DOLLAR BABY solidifies Eastwood has a major talent.
is, on its surface, an old-fashioned sports picture that contains many of the
conventions of that genre, but it's also a pristine example of Eastwood taking
tired clichés and characters and investing into them with flawless performances
and a remarkably challenging and heart wrenching third act that many may not be
expecting. What we have starts like many formulaic sports pictures,
but what we are left with, in the end, is something much more touching,
poignant, and challenging. Maybe
has been better at amalgamating sports traditions with a
serious and thoughtful investigation into the human spirit.
The basic narrative of MILLION
DOLLAR BABY, at least on paper, does not fully do it justice.
Ostensibly, it’s the simple story of an aging boxing trainer who
befriends a tomboy girl who thinks she has what it takes to allow her to go to
the top and beyond. Of course, like
many of pictures in the sports genre, the trainer and prospective trainee
don’t see eye to eye, and the trainer does not see much potential in the
younger and earnest athlete. Of
course, as the film progresses, the trainer warms over to the idea of taking
the young person under his wing and teaches her the ropes in hopes of her
becoming successful. Success is
achieved, while some dramatic tension between the two is generated in regards to
the speed and haste of the trainee’s abilities to go straight to the top.
And so on…and so on.
MILLION DOLLAR BABY contains
everything mentioned, and at least in its first act, it feels like every other
sports film about boxers that have been made.
Yet, what is truly revealing about it is just how far and penetrating a
character study it really becomes. Under
Eastwood’s confident and assured eye, he does not allow BABY to fall victim to
formula. Instead, he uses the sport
of boxing almost metaphorically as a statement about human nature. The first ROCKY film sort of had the same feel and tone,
which also featured a down on his luck boxer who did not so much want to win at
the end for riches or wealth, but just for some self-respect.
BABY is bolder and more ambitious with his breadth and focus, and is
exemplary in the genre in the way it allows the others around the boxer, like
the trainer and his best friend, to be fully developed into characters with
weight and depth, so much so that by the end you bare their burdens and sins.
On these levels, BABY is a powerfully resonate drama.
Eastwood steps into the role of the
crusty old trainer – Frankie – who runs one of those cinematically
A-typical- rundown gyms where he trains promising young talent.
He also reads poetry on the side, maybe to help segregate him from the
tumultuous nature of the sport. His
best friend, Eddie (played in yet another masterful work of minimalist and
serene appeal by Morgan Freeman) is a former boxing great who is now reduced to
janitorial duties at Frankie’s gym. The
two are hateful and spiteful S.O.B.’s to one another, and their exchanges kind
of play with a certain scatological charm and wit that only two friends of many
years can bare to deal with. Their
friendship goes a bit deeper than that. Frankie
once trained Eddie into a title shot, which, evidently, did not go as Eddie
wanted. Eddie holds no major
grudges, however, and maintains his composure as a tried and true friend,
despite some subtle and indirect signs that he has feelings of regret about his
lack of success.
Frankie, as the film opens, is
training a rising star, a star that’s climbing the ladder so fast that Frankie does not manage
to see that he is destined for greatness, mostly meaning that he will seek out
other management that will get him to the top faster with more riches along the
way. Frankie may have seen this
coming, but for one reason or another he is unwilling to neither accept or
acknowledge the fact. With no good
prospects in sight, Frankie's future as a trainer seems doubtful.
This, of course, drastically changes when a young, plucky, and energetic
31-year-old girl from Missouri walks into his gym and starts training as a
boxer. Her name is Maggie and is
played in another great performance by the equally eager and talented Hilary
Swank. She is not altogether that
good and has what seems to be rudimentary boxing skills.
Yet, she has been waitressing since she was 13 and is poor and starving,
so much so that she is forced to often live meagerly off of the table scraps
that customers leave on their plates. She
sees boxing as an escape from her destitute life that does not offer her much
hope or light. She approaches the
apprehensive Frankie for assistance.
She tells him that she is tough, to which Frankie dryly deadpans in
classic Eastwood-jive, “Girl tough ain’t enough.”
When Frankie refuses to train “girly”, Eddie steps in and begins to see what Frankie can’t – a real hard-working heart and ethic that could be channeled into something great. Eddie sees Maggie staying hours at the gym after others have long left, and begins to politely show her some helpful pointers. Eddie, eventually, is able to convince Frankie to train the young woman, to which he begrudgingly agrees to do. The two become an effective team, and Frankie does manage to get Maggie to the top with a title fight.
All of this happens in a predictable fashion, but it’s the ultimate final act after the title fight that is, without me giving anything away, where the film takes a remarkable u-turn and becomes something more sentimental, albeit in gloomy and provocative ways. The whole film boils to a point where just when you think its going from point A to B and then finally to C, it instead makes a dramatic shift in tone and mood that separates it from lesser sports pictures.
The end of the film is not about the big fight, winning it and getting
wealth, prosperity and respect. BABY
ends by examining some tremendously difficult and challenging questions about
the nature of many human dilemmas – which is better, helping a loved one and
honoring their requests to give them peace or ignoring them to mend your own
future guilt and personal sense of a valueless existence?
Sports films have very rarely ever been so absorbing and taxing on their
audience in this capacity. All I
can say is that Eastwood does not go for what he feels is the audience’s idea
of the right answers, but instead succinctly gives us his own. This, in turn, does not compromise the film artistically and
does not panhandle to the emotional needs of the audience. Yes, the end of the film may polarize viewers, but there’s
no denying its power, nor does it manipulate us.
The screenplay by Paul Haggis,
based on a series of short stories from ROPE BURNS by F.X, Toole, has its
attention down to simple details and is evocative in how it speaks volumes.
I loved how sparse, yet poetic, the dialogue was, allowing characters to
speak in plain strokes to convey larger, more penetrating emotions.
The movie is narrated, much like THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, by Freeman,
who if there was ever an Oscar for Best Voice Over performance, then he would
win every time. Freeman's dialogue is given by laying out the story in his monologue and it is as
simplistic, flat, and matter of fact as he is as a character.
It's kind of graceful yet spirited in the way this undemanding man coveys
the whole emotional core of the major protagonists of the piece.
One also senses how deep some of his words dig, and Freeman is masterful
in how his performance delicately balances listening attentively to other
characters and responding. It’s
a deeply attentive performance.
The film is also populated by
Swank’s fantastic work, which is really the main focus of the film.
For an actress that started her career as a female Ralph Macchio is the
making in THE NEXT KARATE KID, her recent performances have observed her to be
an actress that ranks with the best of her young generation.
No scene with her feels forced, rushed, overdone, over- acted, or reeking
in false sentiment. Her work is
focused, precise, and has a kind of gentle minded ferocity.
She is not a spiteful woman with buried grudges on the world around her.
She’s a forcefully independent woman that sees boxing as an outlet to
fight off her sense of status in the world.
In one emotionally powerful moment where she tries to convince Frankie to
train her, she lays her cards on the table openly and frankly, stating that
without boxing all she really is white trash.
Swank grinds her teeth into her performance and makes Maggie breathe with
more depth than similar characters in other films have.
She does not want power and glory, she wants to command respect and
Freeman and Swank are brilliant, to
be sure, but the real surprise is just how good Eastwood is in the film.
He’s never been more commanding, unadorned, and sensitive as he is here
as Frankie. Eastwood, despite his
critical and commercial success, has never been truly revered as a good actor.
Many, however, forget his Oscar nomination for is intensely underplayed
performance in UNFORGIVEN, but the real revelation is just how much better he is
in BABY. Eastwood plays the role with his quintessential charisma and
low-key charm, but he elevates Frankie to something more than a cranky old man.
His chemistry with both Freeman and Swank is unmistakable, but Eastwood
is so serenely commanding in many of the film’s more thoughtful and quiet
moments. Frankie represents
Eastwood’s most grounded of performances, and with the support of Swank and
Freeman, he truly deserved his recent Oscar nomination for his performance.
In a way, his acting is as instinctual and natural as his direction.
Who would have known that Eastwood still had a great performance in him?
MILLION DOLLAR BABY only falters a few times. This is especially true with one supporting character that goes by the nickname of “Danger”, not because of his boxing skills, but ironically as a sarcastic comment of his lack there of. His character feels forced and wrought with stereotype, seemingly so much so that he became more of a distraction and irritant that felt liked he walked into the film from another one. The members of Maggie’s family are also presented as one dimensional stereotypes, who more or less are simply drawn to provide some character building moments for Maggie.
Yet, these are small foibles in an otherwise great film. What transcends MILLION DOLLAR BABY from lesser sports films is its attention to the more minute details, not to mention its enthralling and often haunting power in its drama. It uses the conventions of the sports melodrama to a tee, but it goes further with them by supporting it with great characters and an intimate, endearing, beautiful and tragic story of real authority. BABY is not Eastwood’s best work (that honor goes to MYSTIC RIVER), but it's undeniably a moving picture that headlines Eastwood's continued reputation as an underrated director of range, poetry, patience, and vision.