40 Hours of Television

The class is over, but the discussion continues. Does the media shape reality, or does reality shape the media? Art can imitate life...and life can imitate art. "40 Hours of TV" will explore the media and its impact on us all.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Review: "Million Dollar Baby"

Clint Eastwood has proven himself not only as a great actor, but a great director, one of the best directors working today. Some may see the name Clint Eastwood and the image that might come to mind is Dirty Harry Callahan, but there's so much more to Eastwood, and in his films he has displayed an expertise in taking the elements of a familiar genre and turning that genre upside down, turning it into something different, as he did in his Oscar winning 1992 film Unforgiven.

Unforgiven had the elements of a traditional Western, but in Eastwood's hands it became something different than what you would see in a traditional gunslinger drama.

Million Dollar Baby is the story of Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), an aging boxing trainer and manager who runs a small gym with his friend Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman, who also starred with Eastwood in Unforgiven), a former boxer with a blind eye due to a boxing injury. Dunn, as portrayed by Eastwood, is a man with a lot going on below the surface of his gruff exterior. We learn in the film that Dunn has been estranged from his daughter for many years. He writes her every week, but each letter is returned to sender, and Dunn keeps the rejected correspondence in a box. We also learn that Dunn goes to Mass every day, and has been doing so for 23 years. We do not ever learn what Dunn thinks he is atoning for, which adds to the complexity of the character.

Morgan Freeman narrates the story, telling us about the day when Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) arrived at Dunn's gym. She's a waitress from Missouri, and determined to have a better life for herself through boxing. She's inexperienced but determined, spending hours at the gym training by herself. Dupris is impressed by her will and determination. Maggie wants Dunn to train her; he refuses, saying he doesn't "train girls." Freeman gives a fine performance, as usual, and has great chemistry with both Eastwood and Swank (his great performance earned him an Oscar for best supporting actor).

This may sound like any other boxing movie you've seen, but it's not. This isn't a film about boxing, it's a film about a boxer. In the hands of a lesser director, and lesser actors, the story could have dived down into cliche territory, possibly changed to become a sort of female version of Rocky. It's to Eastwood's credit, and screenplay writer Paul Haggis (who based the screenplay on the book Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner by F.X. Toole), that the story stays on a very human level.

Eddie Dupris, who lives in a small room at the gym, knows that Maggie is a talented fighter in need of a good trainer, and tries to get Dunn to train her. He is determined not to get involved, but in the end reluctantly agrees to train her. She's a fast learner, and before long is knocking out opponents in the first round of a fight. The boxing scenes aren't your typical Hollywood boxing fare: the boxing is real, exhausting for the boxers, and injuries can come at any time.
Hilary Swank is simply amazing as Maggie, creating a character who, like Eastwood, has more going on below the surface than we first know. She's barely scraping by as a waitress, sometimes forced to take food from the restaurant that had been tossed into the trash.

Things change for Maggie as she starts winning fights, and after saving up enough of her earning, she buys a home for her family in Missouri. Maggie's mother, Earline (Margo Martindale), isn't very happy with the gift: she's more concerned that her welfare payments will be cut off, and she doesn't approve of her daughter's decision to become a boxer.

Maggie finally gets a shot at a title fight in Las Vegas, against a fighter named Billie "The Blue Bear" (Lucia Rijker, who also served as Swank's boxing trainer). Billie is a figher known to fight dirty, and does so in her bout against Maggie. When it looks like Maggie is going to win, Billie sucker-punches her and she falls, hitting her head against the stool Dunn had placed in her corner at the end of the round. The injury leaves her paralyzed from the neck down.

It's at ths point the story takes a major turn, and although the ending might already be known by now, I will not spoil it here. The aftermath of the accident is especially emotional for Frankie Dunn, who takes on the role as a surrogate father to Maggie, spending all of his free time with her in the hospital. Maggie's family comes in from Missouri (but not before they'd had the chance to play tourist) and they want to make sure Maggie's money goes to them should anything happen to her. Her family isn't particularly concerned over her injury, and Maggie furiously sends them out of the room.

Eastwood handles the film's emotional conclusion in a way that does not pull it down into a fake sentimentality, which again would have been the case with a lesser director. It's a powerfully emotional conclusion, and in Eastwood's hands, a genuinely emotionally conclusion.
Million Dollar Baby is certainly one of Eastwood's best films, up there with Unforgiven and the powerful Mystic River. He's a director and actor of great talent. Highly recommended.
**** out of ****

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