A film review by Craig J. Koban


2004, R, 122 mins.

Frankie Dunn: Clint Eastwood / Maggie Fitzgerald: Hilary Swank / Scrap: Morgan Freeman

Directed by Eastwood / Written by Paul Haggis, based on stories from Rope Burns by F. X. Toole (Jerry Boyd)

Clint 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 contemporary filmmakers.   

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. 

BABY 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 only RAGING BULL 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 integrity. 

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. 

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