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"Million Dollar Baby" Movie Review

This One's a Winner

By

Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank star in Million Dollar Baby

Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank in "Million Dollar Baby"

© Warner Bros. Pictures
“Million Dollar Baby” was a last minute addition to the list of 2004 Oscar contenders. In fact, Clint Eastwood’s critically acclaimed boxing drama was so late upon the scene that when brought up in conversation as a possible Best Picture nominee back in early December, the response usually was something along the lines of, “Clint Eastwood has a new movie?”

“Million Dollar Baby” could be summed up as a boxing movie, but that would be missing the entire point of the film. The movie does contain some brutally realistic boxing footage, and Hilary Swank is absolutely convincing as a 30ish female boxer who just wants a shot at making it in the ring. The hits come fast and furious and are flinch-inducing, even to those seated safely in a theater out of harm’s way. But the film’s heart and soul is the human story. The relationship drama is never overwhelmed by what takes place in the boxing ring. “Million Dollar Baby” is a story of redemption, a touching tribute to the way strangers connect and form a family. As effectively portrayed onscreen in “Million Dollar Baby,” that connection between strangers can ultimately produce a bond stronger even than blood.

Eastwood stars as Frankie Dunn, the owner of a run-down gym, a place where talented but inexperienced boxers go to learn the sport from a man who knows his stuff. Morgan Freeman plays his trusted friend and employee, Eddie ‘Scrap Iron’ Dupris. In his younger years, Dupris had a shot at making it big but lost an eye in a fight Dunn, Scrap Iron’s cut man, knew was going badly but was unable to stop. After a couple of decades being friends, Dunn and Dupris have the type of relationship that married couples have after similar decades in each other’s company.

Waitress/wannabe boxer Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank) enters the scene begging to be trained and the stubborn, hard-nosed Dunn dismisses her. She’s a ‘girl’ and he doesn’t train girls. But Maggie doesn’t give up. She’s determined to learn from the best and to fight before she gets too old to stand a chance against the much younger competition. Her struggle to win over Dunn isn’t lost on Dupris, who sees a lot of himself in her fiery, competitive spirit. Overcoming his reluctance to get involved, Dunn takes on his first female fighter, training Fitzgerald to be a powerhouse in the ring. In the process of making her into a champion, Dunn learns more about life than his student can learn about boxing.

Since it opened in very limited release on December 15th, Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” has compiled an impressive list of awards. Film critics groups including the San Diego Film Critics Society, Seattle Film Critics, and the New York Film Critics Circle have bestowed best of 2004 honors on “Million Dollar Baby” or its director. Eastwood and/or the film are included on dozens of best of 2004 lists, and reviews of the film are overwhelmingly positive.

There are times you wonder if a movie is piling up the praise because of the popularity of its leading actor or the reputation of its director. And it wouldn’t be stretching it to say that because Clint Eastwood directed and starred in “Million Dollar Baby,” it’s being given more attention than it might have if an unknown director had been in charge. While sometimes that extra little push into the limelight – that extra consideration shown to a movie based on who is behind the camera – means a movie gets way more attention and awards than it deserves, that’s not the case with “Million Dollar Baby.” Eastwood truly deserves all the acclaim, all the accolades he’s earning for bringing this story to the screen. “Million Dollar Baby” is Eastwood’s best work since “Unforgiven.” If he wins the Best Director Oscar for this, he wins it fair and square and not based solely on his considerable reputation.

I’m not usually one to sing Eastwood’s praises but with “Million Dollar Baby,” it’s a case of filmmaker melding as one with his material. Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” cast is equally praise-worthy. Hilary Swank physically fits the role. Her muscular, toned body looks right in the ring, and Swank nails the character by embracing the attitude of a woman who knows she’s hard up against her last opportunity to prove herself. As for Morgan Freeman, he’s perfected this type of role. With his comforting voice-over narration and soothing presence, Freeman provides the perfect counterbalance to Eastwood’s cantankerous old coot character.

I almost wish I could point out something wrong with “Million Dollar Baby” just to be a little different from every other critic on the planet. Fortunately for audiences, “Million Dollar Baby” doesn’t lend itself to any real negative statements. After a year of duds and films that are best forgotten moments after leaving the theater, “Million Dollar Baby” is refreshing, endearing, and unforgettable, and justifiably labeled as one of the best movies of '04.

GRADE: A

"Million Dollar Baby" is rated PG-13 for violence, some disturbing images and thematic material.

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