It may not be the masterpiece some US critics have suggested but Clint Eastwood’s latest film is a moving and refreshingly restrained boxing drama.
Continuing a trend in Eastwood’s recent career, Million Dollar Baby seems to be a subconscious subversion of his earlier career. In the early 90s Unforgiven re-examined the violence of the Westerns that established him as a star, whilst last year’s Mystic River was a cop drama that turned the revenge themes of the Dirty Harry movies on their head, with its focus on victims over heroes. Continuing the trend Million Dollar Baby seems to be a more serious revision of Every Which Way But Loose, the critically reviled hit that had Clint fist fight his way across America with a pet orang-utan. Instead broad comedy we have a much more serious examination of the highs and lows of boxing.
Eastwood plays Frankie Dunn, a veteran boxing trainer who, along with his assistant and former fighter Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman), runs a gym that patches up wounded fighters and gets them back into the ring. But Frank is a man haunted by guilt. His troubled relationship with his estranged daughter and his concern over pushing his fighters too far in the past lead him to regular (and fruitless) sessions with a Catholic priest (Brian O’Byrne). But things change when a poor but determined waitress called Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) shows up at the gym wanting to be trained as a prizefighter. Frankie is initially reluctant but finally gives in and they begin to achieve spectacular success in the ring as well as finding in each other a sense of hope and family absent in their own lives.
The screenplay by Paul Haggis, based on stories from “Rope Burns” by F.X. Toole, bears some similarities to Karyn Kusama’s 2000 film Girlfight. That too involved a plucky female fighter battling against the odds and also featured a feisty and memorable performance from it’s leading actress. Since winning the Oscar for her role in Boys Don’t Cry Hilary Swank has had mixed fortunes with roles in Insomnia (very good), The Affair of the Necklace (dull) and The Core (forgettable). But here she shows what a fine actress she can be, convincing as a tough boxer but also handling the extreme changes of the role as it enters a demanding third act. It says something that she outshines Eastwood, who adopts his familiar gruff-but-likeable persona and Morgan Freeman who provides solid support and also functions as the narrator.
Make no mistake, this is a film that ice skates over many film clichés – the outsider battling against the odds, the veteran redeeming himself through a young protégé – and the story has some obvious antecedents (such as Rocky). But Eastwood navigates away from these with some skill to fashion a drama that is moving and surprising in equal measure. His fame as a leading man has long overshadowed his considerable skills as a director and despite some average films in recent years (True Crime, Blood Work) he has a lightness of touch that is rare in mainstream Hollywood. Million Dollar Baby is in some ways a low-key film, but it has a raw power and level of emotional intimacy refreshingly different from the bombast that many award friendly movies often display.