†† Clint Eastwood became one of the great American filmmakers patiently and slowly through the seventies and eighties. He made interesting deals with the studios, agreeing to act in one of their Dirty Harry sequels provided they put up the budget for a project of his. With each new directing effort one could see the growth in Eastwood as a filmmaker until he released Bird (1988) his brilliant study of jazz great Charlie Parker which announced his arrival as a great director. Just four years later he would win Academy Awards for best picture and best director for his western masterpiece Unforgiven (1992) which also netted him his first acting nomination. Since his Oscar glory he has resisted the urge to sit on his laurels and merely age gracefully, choosing instead to continue to grow as a filmmaker with films such as The Bridges of Madison County (1995) perhaps the finest adult love story made in the last fifteen years, and the unsettling drama Mystic River (2003) which earned him a second best director nomination just last year. |
†† With Million Dollar Baby he will likely find himself once again in the running for best director, and may once again be nominated for best actor for just the second time in his lengthy career.
Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) has spent a lifetime managing and training great fighters with his own cardinal rule, always protect yourself. Though his fighters have gone on to glory, Frankie never has, choosing instead to run a gym where young fighters come to get their start. Managed by his good friend Scrap (Morgan Freeman) the gym barely makes Frankie a living, but he never seems to worry about that, haunted instead by the ghosts of his past. He attends mass every day seeking forgiveness for his past, knowing that that forgiveness will never free him.
† Into his life walks Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) a self described hillbilly who wants to fight and wants Frankie to train her. He resists, but sees her everyday working out, getting a little better with the help no doubt of Scarp. With extraordinary focus and raw talent, Frankie sees that she has the talent to be a fighter and finally she and Scrap wear him down and he takes her on. Though they exasperate one another, they also find in one another a kindred spirit, each damaged by their past and seeing in one another a chance for some form of redemption that may or may not set them free. What neither sees coming is a tragedy that will challenge both of them in the greatest fight on=f their lives, leaving each to wonder if they or the other possesses the power to overcome this overwhelming adversary.
Though she won an Academy Award for best actress in Boys Donít Cry (1999), Swank has never really lived up to the promise of that remarkable performance until now. She is utterly extraordinary as Maggie, getting under the sweaty muscled skin of this tough little woman and finding a strong heart beating under the skin. Though wounded and beaten down by life, she keeps getting up and fighting back, precisely the qualities that make her strong in the ring. Swank handles the physical rigours of the role beautifully but it is her unique chemistry with Eastwood that makes the film work. She becomes the surrogate daughter he so badly needs in his life.
† Eastwood has never been the credit he deserves as an actor in modern film. His performance in Unforgiven (1992) was superb, borne of being haunted by the men he had murdered over the course of his career, and his work in White Hunter Black Heart (1990) was bold and edgy. Letís not forget he shared the screen with Meryl Streep no less and gave one of his best performances in The Bridges of Madison County (1995). Here in Million Dollar Baby he is terrific as a grouchy old Irish Catholic who has given up on his faith because he believes God has given up on him. In Maggie he finds something and someone to believe in, and someone who needs him as much as he needs her. Looking craggy and much like Mount Rushmore, it is nice to see an actor play their age rather than trying to hide it, and it ass so much to the film to see this.
† Morgan Freeman offers fine support as old Scrap, the narrator of this tale and observer of the strange relationship that evolves between the two.
Eastwood is always at his best when directing a small intimate story of the human condition. He captures the ambition, the disappointments, the stake smell of sweat and the agonies of being punched to absolute perfection making Million Dollar Baby one of the yearís best films from one of the most reliable American directors out there, Clint Eastwood.