Eastwood Enters the Ring
I'll be honest here -- previous to Million Dollar Baby, I'd seen only two of Clint Eastwood's works as a director: Unforgiven and Mystic River. I love the first film and like the second one very much. From what I hear concerning the Eastwood oeuvre, I've missed out on a lot of other good films and a fair share of bad ones. But in just three movies I can already feel Eastwood's distinctions. He takes his time telling a story; he cares greatly about characters as people; and in his hands, a genre piece obtains a breathing warmth.
Eastwood also takes time to find ways of putting violence in a proper perspective. Although trying to de-glorify it, he doesn't debase its innate, human appeal. The idea is not to denounce violence; it's to help us understand it better, from motive to consequence. Million Dollar Baby addresses the issue through the sport of boxing. In the film, Eastwood himself plays Frankie, the owner of a small boxing gym who also happens to be a skilled boxing trainer. He's hounded by Maggie (Hilary Swank), who wants his tutelage, but Frankie insists he doesn't train "girls."
There's more to it than that -- we find out that although Frankie is well-versed and enthusiastic about the sport of boxing, he's hesitant to encourage his fighters to contend for championship titles because he fears they won't be fully prepared for it. As a trained "cut man," Frankie knows how much damage can be wreaked when boxing is performed at its highest level. At the same time, those who are trained in the art of boxing often find it's one of their quickest recourses to financial security, an easy dream for those of low-economic status who happen to be fit for it. The Faustian conflict of boxing is highlighted here -- its allure tempting the less fortunate because riches can be won but almost always at the cost of brutal, even debilitating physical punishment.
It would be easy, then, for Eastwood to make us feel guilty about watching the boxing and being engaged by it, but he takes the conflict of boxing one step further by broadening its appeal to a strategic and, yes, a glorious one. The movie offers details about certain training aspects, and the payoff comes in the form of fight sequences that literally urge you to cheer the victories. Boxing is tragically entertaining, its participants almost willingly caught in a Catch-22, and now those participants even include women. Its existence as a sport is as inevitable as it is illogical. As Morgan Freeman's character puts it, "Everything in boxing is backwards."
Frankie's larger perspective of the sport causes his hesitations; meanwhile, Maggie's more limited perspective allows her to embrace its short-lived rewards. Both points-of-view are given credence by the time the movie ends. Believability is helped by the amount of time Eastwood spends on the three main characters played by Swank, Freeman and himself. Overall, Million Dollar Baby is a relationship/redemption story that has a lot to say about the sport of boxing. Once again, by taking his time and creating a careful pace, the director creates credible beings who can successfully play out his themes.
Eastwood needs every ounce of credibility his three stars can give him though; what works against Million Dollar Baby is an air of corniness in story aspects and some badly drawn side characters. A few of the events involving a skinny gym-rat and Maggie's mother are embarrassing in their uses as manipulative plot elements. When the movie works, it works in quiet ways; by contrast, its weaknesses push and prod with noticeable force. So a perfect picture this may not be, but it does have a lot going for it: excellent performances, the director's unique touch, and yet another angle of commentary on America's institutionalization of violence.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "PG-13" for violence, some disturbing images, thematic material and language.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.