Warner Bros. // 2004 // 132 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 14th, 2014
Beyond his silence, there is a past. Beyond her dreams, there is a feeling. Beyond hope, there is a memory. Beyond their journey, there is a love.
"Girlie, tough ain't enough."
Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry) wants nothing more than to be a professional boxer. Never mind the fact that she's never boxed before, hasn't had any professional training and is probably too old to be contemplating a career in the sport. She's determined to do whatever it takes to achieve her dream, and she wants respected trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry) to help her get there. Dunn initially declines ("I don't train girls," he growls), but eventually Maggie's persistence wins him over.
While Maggie embarks upon her journey from zero to hero, we look in on a handful of smaller dramas taking place within the confines of Frankie's gym: the rise of "Big" Willie Little (Men in Black 3), the tireless efforts of the scrappy Danger Barch (Jay Baruchel, Goon) and the life of ex-boxer Eddie "Scrap Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption), who happens to be Frankie's co-worker and best friend.
What is it that makes a Clint Eastwood film a Clint Eastwood film? Some have suggested that the actor/director is a fairly anonymous presence behind the camera, often producing works of quality but never really putting his own stamp on things in a terribly noticeable way. While an Eastwood film may not be as immediately recognizable as, say, a Martin Scorsese or David Lynch effort, there are certain qualities one begins to notice when looking back at his body of work. His movies have a certain meditative stillness to them; he allows the scenes to breathe just a beat or two longer than most directors might. That might sound like a fancy way of saying his movies are slow and dull, but that's not what I mean. Eastwood wants to provide space for his audiences to consider the worlds and characters he helps create. He's a fairly inconsistent filmmaker in many ways (especially over the past decade or so), but that reflective quality is always present. When this style is aligned with the right material -- Honkytonk Man, A Perfect World, Unforgiven, The Bridges of Madison County, Mystic River -- the results can be remarkable. We can spend an eternity debating whether Million Dollar Baby was a worthy Oscar winner (it won Best Picture, Director, Actress and Supporting Actor), but there's no question that it represents one of those special moments in which the director's sensibilities were perfectly aligned to the script he was given.
Behind and in front of the camera, Eastwood cleverly exploits the grizzled toughness he spent decades establishing. It's one thing to make a movie about a crusty old guy whose heart begins to melt when he meets the right person, but it's somehow more affecting when Eastwood is the old guy in question. He starred in so many movies without letting that facade crack, so his scenes of tender sweetness in Million Dollar Baby have a way of catching you off guard. His anguished work in the film's final act represents some of the finest acting of his career. Though Swank (so endearingly enthusiastic) and Freeman (using his sage world-weariness to great effect) are both terrific and won Oscars for their efforts, it's Eastwood's performance that lingers with you. He attempted to repeat the "crusty old man with a soft side" thing later with Gran Torino and Trouble with the Curve, but there's no recapturing the raw beauty of this particular performance.
For whatever reason, the sport of boxing has inspired a larger number of exceptional films than the majority of popular sports, but it's no coincidence that most of these movies are about more than boxing. To call Million Dollar Baby a boxing drama is to do it a disservice (though the boxing scenes are certainly presented in tense, memorable fashion). It's a detailed character study and a masterful portrait of a specific world. Frankie's gym feels like such a lived-in place. The book the film is based on (written by F.X. Toole) is a series of unconnected short stories, but Eastwood and screenwriter Paul Haggis (remember that guy?) find a way to weave them together into a beautiful, melancholy whole. Yes, there are occasional missteps (the cartoonish portrait of Maggie's mother among them), but the film's best moments are powerful enough to completely overwhelm any less-than-remarkable elements.
Of course, the film has already been released on Blu-ray, so the real question here is whether Million Dollar Baby (Blu-ray) 10th Anniversary Edition provides enough incentive to upgrade. The answer is a definitive "maybe." The transfer appears to be unchanged. The original transfer was adequate to begin with, though given that it was a very early Blu-ray release there's no doubt that it could look a good deal sharper. However, the audio has been given an upgrade, as the original release sported a standard Dolby 5.1 Surround track and this one gets a noticably stronger DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track. Only serious audiophiles will appreciate the difference, but the difference is indeed there. You also get two new supplements: a solid commentary track from producer Albert Ruddy (Eastwood doesn't do commentaries) and a new 26-minute retrospective featurette that offers comments from Eastwood, Freeman, Swank, Haggis and other key participants. Additionally, the old features (two EPK-style featurettes and a James Lipton interview with Eastwood, Swank and Freeman) have been reprised. It's not a ton of new stuff (and I really wish the transfer had been given a re-working), but there's enough new material to prevent the release from feeling too much like a lazy cash grab.
Million Dollar Baby is unquestionably a flick that deserves a place on the shelf of every Eastwood fan. Whether you should upgrade mostly depends on how much you care about bonus features and lossless audio, but this is definitely the release to go with if you don't yet own the film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13