Judge Joe Armenio used to box under the name "Kid Presentable."
"You remind me of my daddy."
"Well, he must have been a very intelligent and handsome man."
There's an old saw (I've heard Francis Ford Coppola use it in an interview, but I'm sure he didn't make it up) which says that there's no such thing as a movie without flaws: there's just so much good stuff in the best movies that you're willing to ignore the flaws that they have. That's true of Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, which has its share of overdrawn supporting characters and dubious politics, but is still one of the best movies to come out of Hollywood in quite some time. It's a spare and quiet, but gorgeous and unflinchingly sad drama that cuts so strongly against Hollywood's blockbuster/genre malaise that its very existence is kind of remarkable; without Eastwood's name power, the odds are that it wouldn't have been made at all, or would have been a very different sort of movie.
Facts of the Case
Million Dollar Baby contains a major plot twist which I'm going to give away in this section.
Million Dollar Baby is based on the short stories of a man named Jerry Boyd (1930-2002), a Hemingwayesque raconteur who apparently was a matador at some point (seriously), and also worked in boxing as a cut man; he also espoused a rather severe Irish Catholicism and turned to fiction late in life, publishing Rope Burns under the name F.X. Toole shortly before his death. As Million Dollar Baby begins, Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is a manager who runs a gym called the "Hit Pit" with help from an old friend, an ex-boxer named Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman, Unforgiven). Both are lonely and haunted by various demons, although they hide behind masks of low-key manly stoicism; Scrap lost an eye in a fight and now lives in a tiny apartment above the gym, while Frankie attends mass obsessively and writes every week to a daughter who has cut off contact with him for reasons which are never revealed.
Enter Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry), a waitress from rural Missouri who has escaped her dysfunctional family to pursue a boxing career; she pesters a reluctant Frankie until he agrees to manage her, and he quickly turns her into a first-rate fighter. She earns a championship bout, but during the fight is paralyzed when her opponent (Lucia Rijker, a real-life boxer) delivers a cheap shot. The rest of the film deals with Maggie's tortured decision to end her life, and an equally tortured decision for Frankie.
The "boxing movie" is as old as Hollywood itself, and usually hits the same few inspirational notes: an underdog with nothing going for him but his pluck takes up the sport and, with the help of a kindly mentor and perhaps a loving girl, works his way to the top, but not before experiencing setbacks, fending off corruption and the advances of less virtuous women (Robert Rossen's Body and Soul and John Avildsen's Rocky are probably the most successful variations on this formula). For a while, Million Dollar Baby seems to be headed in a similar direction, with Maggie in place of a male protagonist, but its twist sends it to radically different places. In a way, it resembles Martin Scorsese's renegade boxing film, Raging Bull, although the tone of Scorsese's film is much more fevered, and its attitude toward boxing is different. Scorsese uses the sport as a particularly vivid expression of Jake LaMotta's blind, self-destructive anger, while for Eastwood, boxing is interesting only because it is a craft, something over which these troubled people can claim mastery; it could be anything. There are a few attempts to describe boxing's particular appeal (mostly in Scrap's voiceover narration), but they seem half-hearted and are abandoned pretty quickly.
Eastwood is also interested in boxing's seediness, and its appeal to outsiders and the abandoned, those without other chances; Million Dollar Baby is, above all, a story about the formation of a community among people who have been let down by the world. In this theme lies both the movie's greatest achievements and its biggest faults. Frankie, for example, has been disappointed by all the structures that society provides to connect people to each other. He goes to church but seems to take little solace in it; we see him baiting his priest with smartassed theological questions, to which the cleric replies with a somewhat implausible brusqueness. He has no family, and his letters to his daughter are returned unopened. Scrap likewise has no one, except for Frankie. Maggie's father is dead, and her mother and siblings are a group of slothful, ungrateful welfare cheats.
The portrayal of Maggie's family is one of the film's most troubling problems, not only because they're dramatically overdrawn (I think it's safe to blame that on screenwriter Paul Haggis, given the relentless bombast of his debut feature as a director, Crash) but because they represent a pretty banal and regressive political point of view; Maggie has scrappily worked her way to the top, living the American Dream, while her lazy family thinks only of themselves and the various ways by which they can cheat the government. Eastwood, is, of course, a Republican, which may account for his approval of this plot thread, but in a film so subtle and refined, its heavy-handedness is jarring.
Lucia Rijker's character is also an unfortunate caricature; Rijker is black, and she's portrayed as a glowering villainess, accompanied by ominous music as she enters the ring. She's also a former prostitute, while we get no indication that Maggie has ever been with a man. The conflict is between good and evil, white and black, virgin and whore: this is clichéd, tiresome, and a little offensive, and it seems that Eastwood should be above them. A similar dynamic exists in the unnecessary subplot involving "Danger" (Jay Baruchel), a mentally disabled white boy who spends time in the club and is tormented by a swaggery black boxer named Shawrelle (Anthony Mackie).
While the treatment of these villains is pretty clumsy, it does illustrate that Frankie, Scrap, and Maggie are alone in the world, that, let down by their families and churches, they've decided to form a sort of voluntary community. In exploring this idea, Million Dollar Baby is like a lot of other films, but what makes it so powerful is its assertion that the connections we forge, the voluntary communities we form, are not enough, that they're just as doomed to dissolution as the families we've discarded.
I'm not usually one to lament past golden ages, but Million Dollar Baby is an example of a sort of filmmaking which one doesn't see in Hollywood anyone. The pacing is patient, the scenes gorgeously, moodily underlit, the editing elegant (those graceful lap dissolves always send a happy chill up my spine). Eastwood wrote the music himself, and it's lovely: a series of quiet, folksy themes which accentuate the scenes without drawing attention to themselves. It's an understated, totally assured, and unostentatious style. This maturity and patience also extends to the narrative at times; for example, never telling us about the nature of Frankie's conflict with his daughter seems like a gesture of respect for the audience, a willingness to let the viewer participate in the creation of the drama, a refusal to overexplain. As actors, Eastwood and Freeman are both similarly majestic, and Swank keeps up with them, suggesting sweetness and bone-deep toughness at the same time.
Warner is releasing Million Dollar Baby in a couple of different editions; there is a two-disc version which contains the film and a second disc of extras, as well as a three-disc "deluxe" edition with has the CD soundtrack as well. I received the "deluxe" edition for review, and I'm not really convinced that it's worth the extra money. Eastwood's music works well in the context of the film, but wrenched from that setting it seems kind of slight; the soundtrack is 34 minutes long, and features mainly variations on the same few folksy themes.
The movie is the only thing on Disc One: there are no commentaries or extras, so the bit rate is quite high, meaning that the transfer is very sharp. I'm confident that even the pickiest technophiles will find the video excellent here, conveying the full richness of Eastwood's subtle compositions. The soundtrack is not especially complicated, and the 5.1 Surround sound carries the dialogue and music capably. The extras are found on Disc Two, and consist of two brief documentaries (19 and 13 minutes) and a 25-minute interview segment featuring the film's three stars and ubiquitous Bravo host James Lipton. Born to Fight has rather unexciting interviews with Swank, Eastwood, Freeman, Baruchel, and Mackie, and focuses loosely on Rijker talking about the ways in which the film parallels her career in boxing; she comes off as an articulate and engaging person, which makes her portrayal in the film all the more frustrating. The Producers' Round 15 focuses on the process by which the film was made and contains interviews with Haggis and producers Albert Ruddy and Tom Rosenberg. The interview with Lipton takes place outside of his usual Inside the Actors' Studio context, which perhaps is why I found him a little less insufferable than usual. The most interesting segments feature Swank talking about her teenaged migration to Hollywood, Freeman on his talents as a dancer, and Eastwood on the ways in which he prefers to direct actors. For a three-disc "deluxe" edition, the extras here are actually pretty sparse, which I appreciated; a film which works largely because of its subtlety and patience would seem marred by a slew of filler extras (maybe it's heresy to say it, but I'm not even sure what good a commentary track would have done).
In his old age, Eastwood has started to take on projects of rare power and bleakness: I admired the ambition of 2003's Mystic River, even though the director's grasp of the story seemed to slip at times and he was too indulgent of Sean Penn's grandstanding. Million Dollar Baby seems like another step forward, one which was rewarded by critical praise and four Oscars, including Best Picture. For once, if only as a lifetime achievement award to its man Clint, the Academy got it right, abandoning its usual bland and stolid fare for an unusually elegant film that is also, let's face it, a meditation on loneliness, failure, and death. It was one of the best movies of 2004, and let's hope that Eastwood has many more such films left in him.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• James Lipton Takes On Three: Roundtable With Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, and Moderator James Lipton
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