movie film review | chris tookey

Million Dollar Baby

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  Million Dollar Baby  Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
7.67 /10
Frankie Dunn: Clint Eastwood , Maggie Fitzgerald: Hilary Swank
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Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Paul Haggis , based on stories from Rope Burns by F. X. Toole (Jerry Boyd)

Released: 2004
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 133

Million Dollar Baby comes on like a nice, polite, old-fashioned, boxing movie, jabbing away at its audience at arm’s length, while showing us some fancy footwork. It waits until we are under its spell, lulled into a sense of feelgood familiarity. And then it delivers a sucker punch guaranteed to knock anyone out. This is a world-class heavyweight contender.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Coming after the almost as impressive Mystic River, it proves that, at the age of 74, Clint Eastwood is just entering the full glory of his maturity, helped no doubt by the steadying influence of Henry Bumstead, his 89 year-old production designer who, nearly a half century ago, helped Hitchcock out on Vertigo.

Million Dollar Baby is the outstanding movie of Eastwood’s already glorious career, and deservedly won Best Picture at the Oscars.

Frankie Dunn (Eastwood, pictured left) is an elderly gym-owner, trainer and manager who’s ultra-conservative and past his prime. He’s trained fine fighters but has grown over-cautious about putting them up for title fights, with the result that most abandon him before they reach the top.Maybe he feels too fatherly towards them – an irony, in view of the fact that he and his real daughter have been estranged for years, and she returns his weekly letters to him, unread. His only friend is his long-time employee Scrap (Morgan Freeman, pictured centre), a one-eyed ex-boxer. They bicker together like a long-married couple.

Into their well-ordered but dead-end lives comes Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank, pictured right), determined to make it to the top in boxing, but inexperienced, seemingly too old at 31, and – to make matters worse as far as Frankie’s concerned, “a girlie”. But guess who takes her under his wing.

All this may sound cosy and over-familiar, and to some extent it is. The first two-thirds of the movie constitute an utterly conventional boxing movie, albeit presented with clarity and wit, and performances that aren’t just faultless, but inspired.

The scene where Maggie finally browbeats Frankie into training her is among the best written and acted I’ve seen. Even though it’s obvious what’s coming and the scene delivers precisely what you expect, you won’t be able to stop a tear from coming to your eye. It’s similar in that respect to Billy Elliot, another movie that somehow managed to rise above its own cliches.

Throughout the movie, there’s a marvellous air of authenticity. Paul Haggis’s screenplay is based on a short story from the collection Rope Burns by F.X. Toole. Toole was himself a former “cut man”, the member of a boxer’s team whose job it is to patch him up so that he can continue to fight. The film reeks of experience and expertise.

The less revealed about the final third of the picture, the better. I saw it coming, for in this kind of well-crafted script there’s always an element of foreshadowing; but it still carries an enormous emotional punch, and carries the movie on to another level.

It’s a legitimate criticism of Vera Drake that it left religion out of its moral equation. Million Dollar Baby is one of those rare, courageous films that takes religion seriously. Frankie is an Irish-American Catholic who’s disillusioned with his church and lack of relationship with his daughter. He’s searching for his own roots by learning Gaelic, and he’s searching for spiritual redemption, though he’s not sure how. Eastwood plays him with wonderful dignity and depth, and a touching minimum of words.

Hilary Swank has already won one Best Actress Oscar for Boys Don’t Cry (1999), and she’s even better in this. She draws upon her own background – like the heroine, she was born poor and lived in a trailer – and she is utterly convincing as a world-beating welterweight boxer, even though before she was cast she had never thrown a punch.

It’s no accident that actors in Eastwood’s movies have a tendency to win Oscars. Sean Penn and Tim Robbins both triumphed last year, for Mystic River, and Kevin Bacon deserved at least a nomination.

Eastwood casts expertly, trusts the actors to do their job and shoots a minimum of takes. 20 takes or more are the norm on a Hollywood movie. Eastwood shoots between one and three. Not only is this highly economical as regards time and money: it clearly keeps the actors fresh, and concentrates their minds to a miraculous degree.

Like so many classic American movies, from John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath through to John Sayles’s Lone Star, Million Dollar Baby shows huge respect for the common man and woman, their dreams and disappointments. Yet in Maggie’s white-trash family it dares to paint one of the most deeply unsympathetic – and, I fear, realistic - portraits of the lumpenproletariat ever to grace the screen. This is a wise, humane but clear-sighted movie, made by a marvellous director at the height of his powers.

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