Tuesday 19 April 2016

Movie Review: Million Dollar Baby (2004)

A superlative boxing drama, Million Dollar Baby is the story of a woman determined to box her way to a meaningful life, and the reluctant trainer who has to decide if he wants to help her get there.

Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) is a grizzled elderly trainer and an expert cut man, now running a gym more derelict than most. His only friend and confidant is the equally old former boxer Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman), who lost an eye in his final fight (with Frankie in his corner) and is now reduced to the role of gym janitor. As a result, Frankie has developed a reputation for being too cautious in managing the careers of his fighters, and they tend to leave him for other managers when on the cusp of glory. Frankie is also estranged from his daughter, who returns all his letters unopened.

Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) invites herself to the gym and starts pestering Frankie to train her. He wants nothing to do with training a woman, perceiving women's boxing as a passing fad. Maggie is from a white trash family and is nothing if not persistent, saving every penny from her waitressing job to buy better equipment. Frankie eventually relents and agrees to train her as long as she doesn't question any of his instructions. Together they start the long road to success, with unexpected outcomes.

Directed by Eastwood, written by Paul Haggis and narrated with soul by Freeman, Million Dollar Baby contains plenty of plot after Frankie finally agrees to work with Maggie. But it is not possible to reveal more of the narrative without spoiling the movie. Suffice to say that the drama extends to ecstasies and agonies rarely captured in screen sports stories, and the final 45 minutes takes a stunning twist towards a new realm that both shocks and captivates. This is a film that transcends its genre to touch the essence of the human spirit, with both Frankie and Maggie forced to confront what really matters and the definition of life itself.

Maggie's arc is the story of boxing, the sport an escape road from a wasted life of ruin, with the bonus offer of a potential shot at glory. Eastwood provides only snippets of Maggie's despicable family background, and it's enough to justify all her desire to do whatever it takes to escape her default status. Meanwhile plenty of texture is derived from the interaction between Frankie and Eddie, two veterans more than worn out by the battles of days past, but still unable to leave the sport behind.

Frankie tries to fill the emptiness in his life by learning languages and reading refined literature. None of it helps. His oxygen is obtained ringside, living vicariously through every punch and feint, looking for opponent weaknesses and developing knock-out strategies for his fighters. Eddie is more grounded, still keeping his eye on the talent at the gym as he drags his janitorial buckets around, looking for the spark of talent that can be nurtured into a contender, and encouraging the no-hopers to at least dream big. The conversations between the two, about everything from the regrets of yesteryear to the holes in Eddie's socks, add enormous depth to the film.

Eddie's narration is almost poetic in its mystical reverence towards the sport of boxing, where everything seems backwards. Boxers step out to attack, step in to defend, use the right foot to push left and the left foot to veer right. Self protection is the basis for destroying an opponent, and boxers control their breathing in the most breathtaking moments. It's a sport where victory comes from pummeling an opponent but only within preset rules, and one life can change for the better when another life lies in agony, face down on the canvas.

And the film has the old-fashioned patience of a 15 round bout going the distance. Eastwood allows himself a running time of 132 minutes, and plenty of scenes add in the necessary shadings to flesh out Frankie, Eddie and Maggie into deeply affecting characters. Eastwood, Swank and Freeman create unforgettable and imperfect people, all three stubborn enough to withstand the rigours of the sport, and all three full of individual warts, passion, heroism and perseverance.

Million Dollar Baby avoids anything that looks glamorous. Even Maggie's higher profile fights exude the ambiance of a sport struggling for relevance, and most of her lower rung bouts are little more than sideshows in local gymnasia. There is finally money to be made at an inordinately high cost. Frankie and Maggie confront the risks and rewards together, and find both to be more than they could have ever imagined.

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