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In the Ring

The affecting Million Dollar Baby.

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Though he's gaining the stature as one of America's great living filmmakers (witness the comparisons with Martin Scorsese in this year's Oscar race), Clint Eastwood's tendency has been to mix generally uncelebrated genre flicks (Absolute Power, True Crime) with his prestige pictures (Unforgiven, The Bridges of Madison County, Mystic River). This year's Oscar nominations, which find Eastwood and his cast nominated in pretty much every relevant category, tell you all you need to know about where Million Dollar Baby fits. But more so than Mystic River (or even Sideways), it's a film that's divided critics this year, who feel even more strapped by a reluctance to reveal Baby's considerable narrative twists. Some critics say that Eastwood's films are an oasis of classic craftsmanship in a desert of effects and test-marketing. Others find his films impossibly bloated.

It's easy to see why Eastwood's biggest detractors find his films solemn and dull. And it's equally easy to see why his champions describe the same elements as elegant, stately, measured, patient. For me, there's a bit of both there. After one viewing, I don't think Million Dollar Baby is a masterpiece or a fraud. I think it's a handsome, affecting film with great moments and performances surrounding a few wrong notes.

Million Dollar Baby is a pretty simple setup revolving around three characters. Eastwood is boxing lifer Frankie Dunn, once "the best cut man in the business," who went on to become a trainer, manager, and gym owner. Because Frankie is so protective of his fighters, he's never taken one to a title. He keeps waiting until they're ready, but, in his eyes, that time never comes.

As the film opens, Frankie is on the verge of losing his most promising fighter, who's tired of waiting for a title shot. Frankie is warned of this impending loss by Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a washed-up, worn-out former contender who helps Frankie around the gym and whose own missed opportunities inform Frankie's timidity.

These two grandfatherly types are joined by Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a 31-year-old waitress and southwestern Missourah trailer-park escapee who wants to box. Maggie spies Frankie punching the air along with his fighter, living and dying on every punch, and she falls in love the romance of someone as obsessed with their craft as she'd like to be.

Maggie approaches Frankie in the dark halls of the arena after her fight and asks him to be her trainer. He tells her he doesn't train girls. She shows up at his gym and pays six months worth of dues. He explains that she's too old to learn to be a boxer. She smiles, nods, and keeps on training. If you've seen enough Hollywood movies you can guess the rest most of it, anyway.

Million Dollar Baby is excellent as a boxing movie, making rich use of its primary setting, the Hit Pit, Frankie's dank outskirts-L.A. gym where second-tier fighters and pretenders train and where Frankie watches over the action from his upstairs office. (Telling motto on the wall: "Tough ain't enough.") The film gets into the details of the so-called sweet science footwork, balance, protecting yourself but it doesn't romanticize the sport. Boxing is savage, its Darwinian simplicity summed up by Scrap: "Boxing is about respect. Getting it for yourself and taking it from the other guy." The film's fight scenes are swift. In this movie, when people are hit hard they fall fast and they get hurt.

With a hungry heart and a swift, lethal right hook, a trained Maggie plows through women's boxing like Mike Tyson in the 1985 heavyweight division. She's not interested in hurting her opponents but also not overly concerned when she does. She's been waitressing for 18 years, collecting other people's leftovers in a scrap of tinfoil she keeps in her pocket. Boxing isn't all she's got; it's what she's got.

It's Swank who really carries the film. Her open, guileless performance may not be as revelatory as her Oscar-winning turn in Boys Don't Cry, but it's every bit as fine. And she likely seals her second little statue with a matter-of-fact speech she gives when Frankie asks her to give up and go home.

I was less convinced by Eastwood's wincing, whispering performance, where he seems to be coasting a bit on his own built-in gravitas. And Morgan Freeman? Well, he's always a pleasure to watch. As narrator, sidekick, and witness to a white buddy's redemption, his Scrap evokes The Shawshank Redemption a little too strongly, but that comparison might actually be a path to appreciating Million Dollar Baby.

If Eastwood's best films are reminiscent of an earlier time in American movies, it's not any of the elements of classic Hollywood I personally admire most: His relatively humorless films contain none of the screwball glee of Preston Sturges and Leo McCarey or the deceptively light laughs of Ernst Lubitsch, and little of the relaxed comic grace of Howard Hawks. (Though one lovely little throwaway scene where Frankie and Scrap discuss Scrap's raggedy socks "I'm airing out my feet" is pretty Hawksian.)

Million Dollar Baby has elements of melodrama, but Eastwood doesn't push it to the radical, rapturous extremes of a

Douglas Sirk or Nicholas Ray. Eastwood's best films are certainly manly, traditional, and, arguably, conservative, like those of John Ford, but without that director's intense interest in common, communal rituals. And Eastwood's hard-boiled economy might evoke Fritz Lang, but I don't sense the same degree of unsparing inevitability.

Rather, what Eastwood evokes is the macho, dependable, yarn-spinning movie-movieness of such mid-century filmmakers as John Huston, Robert Aldrich, and Eastwood's Dirty Harry director Don Siegel. This is why even Eastwood's prestige films are still genre movies at the core and why he's far less self-conscious about those distinctions than a younger, hipper director might be. Much like Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby is a movie that simultaneously honors and upends the conventions of its genre. And unlike The Shawshank Redemption (or other Oscar bait Ö la Ray or A Beautiful Mind), it never strains to be loved. Million Dollar Baby doesn't care what you think about it.

This is apparent in its darkness, where the photographic palette of dingy, underlit grays and greens is only occasionally broken up by little rays of visual or emotional light: the shiny Celtic green of Maggie's ring attire or the fire-engine red of an Everlast corner stool that signifies the big-time; Maggie's heartbreaking smile at the little girl with a puppy one car over; and Frankie's simple satisfaction over a homemade lemon meringue pie.

And yet I don't think upright old-timers Huston, Aldrich, or Siegel ever made a film quite so emotional or affecting as Million Dollar Baby.

Eastwood's film is drowning in foreshadowing as much as it's drowning in darkness, so the film's much whispered-about final-stretch twist shouldn't come as that much of a shock. But it does take established character elements and rockets them into a more intense emotional realm. It transforms Million Dollar Baby from a film about boxing, career redemption, and second chances into a hymn to busted, broken families and the lonely, lost people they leave behind. But what's so striking even then is how dark and unrelenting the movie is, even as it strives for a final bit of grace. In the simultaneously gritty and stylized world of Million Dollar Baby, solace doesn't come from family or church, work or society. It comes from the makeshift connections you create and cling to with other wayward free agents. That doesn't sound like a worldview Oscar would endorse, but we'll soon find out.

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