Saturday, January 29, 2005

Review: "Million Dollar Baby" (2004)

Very few movies dare to be quiet nowadays. From action films to comedies, the theme of most current films is volume (in both audio and video). Even dramas can depend too much on soundtrack swells and histrionics in order to get audiences to shed tears when they might normally not give a damn. But there are quieter films that use an economy of sound and barest minimum of light in order to tell a story. For a boxing movie, it seems appropriate for a film to be trimmed of every ounce of fat, leaving only lean muscle.

"Million Dollar Baby" is indeed a boxing film, but it is also something more. Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) was and is one of the best "cut men" in the business (quick and effective surgery on the edges of the ring). In his old age, he has turned to managing a grungy gym and a handful of promising boxers. His best, and only, friend is Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a former boxer who damaged his eye in his last fight and now helps maintain the gym for Frankie. One day, a 31 year old woman from Missouri named Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) walks in and asks Frankie to manage and train her. He refuses flat out, but she hangs around all the same. With some convincing from Eddie, he relents and begins training her for her own chance at the bigtime.

As I said at the start, this is a spare film. The music, which was composed by Eastwood, is not a rousing anthem in which to cheer Swank in the ring. We only hear the brutal puches during her matches and then hear tiny snatches of a recurring piano theme for the more emotional scenes. Visually, there are many scenes in dark rooms where only a face, a hand or a profile is seen. Some might liken this to Noir, and certainly the subject of boxing has seen its share of coverage in that genre, but the real purpose of this lighting technique is to draw even more focus on what really matters: the characters themselves.

I saw this film recently not only because of all the good reviews, but also because I kept hearing everyone talk about the big plot twist the film has. There have been films in the past that become so popular in conversation that I have ended up hearing the twist before I got to see the film ("Primal Fear" was one of these). Considering all the Oscar attention this film was getting, I didn't want this to happen this time around. I'm refraining from mentioning it in this review and will just say that the twist in not nonsensical and does take the plot in a new, worthy direction.

So, without touching on more plot specifics than I already have, I'll talk about the characters. The definite standout here is Swank. As we witness her earnestness and determined zeal for the sport, we cannot help but be on her side and rooting for her. And, despite those who would pigeonhole her as less feminine due to this role and "Boys Don't Cry", let me just state for the record that she exudes charisma and sex appeal even through the muscles she builds up.

Eastwood and Freeman, who are once again teamed as grizzled old friends since their turn in "Unforgiven", both turn in fine performances. Both also adopt a harsh rasp that is meant to indicate their rough and tumble lives in the Boxing world. It's momentarily disconcerting at the beginning, but this passes. I also have to say that between scenes of Frankie teaching boxing to Maggie and scenes of Frankie sharing a tender moment with Maggie, the later ones are the more believable. In terms of real emotive acting, Eastwood has still got it.

Two other minor characters come into play halfway through the film, and they both turn out to be villains of a sort: fellow boxer Billie "The Blue Bear" (Lucia Rijker) and Maggie's mother Earline (Margo Martindale). The role of Billie is understated but effective in the bare screen time she is give. The role of Earlie is something else altogether. She has two large scenes in the film, and in both she is backed up by several members of the family. Though I could accept how cruel she could be in the first scene, her and her family's actions in the second scene bordered on farcical. I understand why these scenes are in the film and what function they serve, but putting these shallow characters alongside Eastwood and Swank is a little too disconcerting.

The boxing ring is one of the brightest lit objects in the film, and there's a reason for that. Just as the film is whittled down to the barest essentials, so is the sport venue that is the focus: a simple white square where two people fight each other until the fight is done. And in reverence to this style, let me sum up this film in the barest language possible: This is a story that stays with you.

Nine out of Ten

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