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MILLION DOLLAR BABY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Hillary Swank, Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman
Director:  Clint Eastwood
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  132 Minutes
Release Date:  July 12, 2005

"I got nobody but you, Frankie."

Film ****

Million Dollar Baby is a film I could talk, and talk, and talk about until my mind goes numb from lack of oxygen.  Yet that is something I cannot do here in good faith.  When I first saw the film theatrically, I didn't have the slightest hint at what was going to play out in front of me.  The result was a completely haunting and beautifully moving filmgoing experience, something that is so rare these days that when it happens, you don't forget it.

Frankly, far too much has been made about the movie's so-called "controversy" by right-wing schlocks like Michael Medved.  Such protest is so misguided you have to wonder if both sides of the protester's brain are touching each other.  It called attention to the film, to be sure, but only served to rob those unfortunate enough to listen in of one of the new millennium's true soul-impacting experiences.

I'm a confirmed right-winger myself...everybody who knows me or reads this site regularly knows that about me.  And so is director/producer/star Clint Eastwood.  Why anybody would question his motives when all he did was make a movie that took its characters seriously and remained absolutely true to who they were and what their choices would be to the very end is beyond me.  There are no politics at play here.  No moral proclamations.  Eastwood makes no comment on what is right or what is wrong...again, all he did was consider his characters with love and deep understanding, and enough respect to follow them through to their logical conclusions.

So if you don't know the full scope of Million Dollar Baby, relax while you read.  There are no spoilers here.  All I want as a fellow movie lover is for all of you to have the exact same experience I did when I first saw it, for such an experience is a prize to be treasured.

Eastwood stars as Frankie Dunn, an aging fight trainer running a small gym with the aid of his long time friend Scrap (the Oscar winning Freeman).  Gruff and somewhat withdrawn, his life seems to revolve around his gym, the dwindling parade of fighters he manages up until the point they're ready to go big, when they inevitably leave him, and daily Mass, where he asks rather bizarre questions of his priest, who in turn wonders what kind of guilt a man must carry in order to go to Mass every day for 23 years.

Enter Maggie Fitzgerald (the superb Swank, another Oscar winner), a waitress in her early 30s who has developed a taste for the ring.  Frankie is old school; he doesn't believe in female boxers.  He'd rather her not train in his gym, but isn't in a position to turn down her money.  For Maggie, boxing is the first thing she's ever felt good doing, and has seized it as a possible path out of a lifetime of waitressing.

She wants Frankie to train her.  He wants no part of her pipe dream.  But Scrap begins to convince him to take a good look at her and recognize the raw talent there.  Perhaps Frankie and Maggie are just what each other needs in order to start again.

What plays out seems familiar but very good.  It looks as though it's following the typical underdog-makes-good sports story that made films like Rocky such beloved favorites.  As Maggie begins to progress into a fighter who can seriously contend, the friendship/mentor-pupil relationship between her and Frankie seems like a healing wind in both of their lives.

But this isn't something you've seen before.  The familiarity of the story draws you in, makes you comfortable, and helps win your affection for three great characters.  But there's a much larger test in store for them, and it doesn't take place in the ring.

Clint Eastwood has directed 25 films in his career, and like a fine wine, he seems to get better and better with age.  His previous film Mystic River was a true career high point, so much so that fans probably figured he wouldn't be able to top it (few could).  But Eastwood has never been one to throw in the towel.  Million Dollar Baby is his undisputed masterpiece. 

He manages to capture three souls with a perfect and unyielding clarity.  The movie is really an exploration of their lives...their hopes and dreams, their deepest fears, their triumphs and their failures.  It's the kind of faith so few filmmakers seem to have anymore...they get caught up in the action and conflict and stylistic dynamism that they completely miss the fact that the landscape of the human heart can be so much more complex and fascinating.

Eastwood also delivers his greatest performance to date in this movie.  Those like me who have watched him over the years have come to expect a certain kind of delivery from his acting; it's as comforting as a warm blanket on a cold night.  But I've never seen him express such vulnerability and torment as he does here, particularly in the last stretch.  It's rare that an actor you know so well can suddenly and so thoroughly surprise you, but that's just what he does here.  His Oscar nomination was well deserved.

But statuettes went to his co-stars, and with good reason.  Hillary Swank proved her potent first strike with Boys Don't Cry was no fluke.  With Maggie, she managed to surpass her earlier great work and create a character that you won't be able to stop thinking about for a long time after...if ever.  And the always solid and reliable Morgan Freeman, who once earned a nomination working with Eastwood in Unforgiven but lost out to his co-star Gene Hackman, finally scored the prize here, as the man who gives the story not only its voice but its sense of conscience as well.

Million Dollar Baby was a film that arrived late in the year with little fanfare, typical of Eastwood's quiet charm...he prefers to let his films speak for themselves.  And when it hit, it took fans and critics by storm, as everyone grabbed for their pencils and began immediately revising their Oscar picks.  A good move, since it also ended up scoring for Best Picture and Director, Eastwood second such pair of honors since Unforgiven.

It's a nice reminder that through all the spectacle Hollywood throws our way, a simply told story about very real people can move us more than all the bloated budget eye candy flicks combined.  Some films leave your mind before you leave the theatre, but Million Dollar Baby will become a permanent part of your heart.

Video ****

Warner's anamorphic transfer is a technical knockout...Eastwood employed a mostly dark look for his film, which can sometimes be trouble on DVD, but his images come across with startling clarity and detail regardless of the level of light.  There is no undue grain, no bleeding, and no compromised colors.  The movie may even look better on disc than it did on the big screen...outstanding.

Audio ***1/2

From the quiet dialogue oriented scenes to the thunderous action in the ring, the 5.1 audio delivers punch and dynamic range from start to finish.  Subwoofer use is minimal, but not really missed, while the rear channels bring some of the sounds of the fight to full life.

Features **1/2

A little lightweight in the extras department, even for a multi disc set.  The theatrical trailer is included on Disc One.  Disc Two features a roundtable discussion with Eastwood, Swank and Freeman moderated by James Lipton.  There is a look at real life female boxer Lucia Rijker (who also spars with Hillary Swank in a key fight scene) and the parallels between her story and the movie.  There is also a featurette on the film's producers and how the picture came into being.

If you spring for the three disc set, the third disc is a CD of Eastwood's impressive score.

Summary:

Now that you've come to end of the review, run, don't walk, and grab your copy of Million Dollar Baby and experience it for yourself.  And if anybody tries to give anything away to you ahead of time, you're justified in my book in going for the hefty left-right combination to the jaw.

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