Wednesday, February 02, 2005

film: Million Dollar Baby

Million Dollar Baby 5/5

Clint Eastwood plays Frankie Dunn, who together with Morgan Freeman (Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris), work at Frankie’s boxing gym. They've known each other for almost 40 years, having met when Eddie was a boxer and Frankie was a ring-side medic-type.

One day, Frankie is approached by Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), an enthusiastic but woefully unskilled amateur boxer, to have him train her. She’s rebuffed but shows up at the gym to train anyways, and to try to coax him.

Eventually, he gives in, under the promise that he will find someone else to manager her, once she’s trained. She puts in long hours at the gym when she’s not working as a waitress. After asking for a chance to fight, Frankie sets her up with a manager.

In her first fight, she boxes poorly. She would have lost, too, had Frankie not taken over management again and given her advice on how to handle her opponent. For the next several fights, her star rapidly rises. Other managers are afraid to let their female boxers take her on…

Fortunately, director Clint Eastwood does not overly dramatize Maggie’s rise. You won’t mistake this film for Rocky. It’s much more nuanced. Sometimes, the best acting you see in the movies is when you feel the story and forget that you are watching actors. No one is over the top and unrealistic. Eastwood’s character is played with depth that comes not so much from what he says, but from what you see in his face and eyes. His character attended church every day for 23 years, but is deeply wounded and hurt by his failed relationship with his daughter. The performance is utterly convincing and this is despite the fact that we’re never told the details of their estrangement. This is how strong the script is. He’s also very much torn between the wishes of Maggie, later on in the film, and his own principles and guidance from his church.

Hilary Swank’s Oscar nomination as best female actor is deserved. Her character is confident and full of spirit because she loves boxing and is given a chance to live it. Meanwhile, we see her trailer trash roots, with a broken family, mother on perpetual welfare, etc. Feel the reaction of her crude, insensitive mom when Maggie and Frankie drive the family from their trailer home, to see the house that Maggie bought for her mom. It’s visceral moments like these that make Million Dollar Baby a film that draws out the emotions in you. And it’s not what you think. Neither are some other key moments in the rest of this superior film.

Based on the book Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner by F.X. Toole.

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