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Million Dollar Baby

The biggest story this awards season will surround Clint Eastwood’s knockout left cross sucker punch from seemingly out of nowhere, Million Dollar Baby. There is just no two ways about it, this film is a surefire sparkplug that simply cannot be ignored. Mystic River surprised a lot of people, but nothing, and I mean nothing, could possibly prepare you for this film.

On the surface it looks harmless enough. In fact, on mere pitch alone it is almost easy to see why a studio like Warner Brothers would shy away from financing a film whose central characters are steeped in boxing culture. Add to this the fact that the central fighter is a female played by Hillary Swank and you can rest assured that the suits smelled a “female Rocky” on their hands. The thing they forgot to factor in is that the man pitching the film was Clint Eastwood, a man not known to “go quietly in the night.”

Stepping aside from the whole scenario, I must be up front and admit that I’m not, by any means, a huge fan of Clint Eastwood “the director.” He’s had his share of hits in my book, but never really seemed to “gel” for me behind the camera. As an actor, he has the stuff. I’ve just always put his role as a director as a second tier move from a screen legend in the business. Never mind the twenty-plus films he’s directed, it never really affected me.

Million Dollar Baby, however, has me rethinking this position. Granted, his previous work is what it is, and that’s just not going to change for me. Yet Baby is just so good that you simply cannot dismiss the man in the chair. His paws are all over this one and it’s nothing short of pure cinematic gold.

Let’s plow through some basic plot points to set up the gist of the film, because to move past any of the general stuff would really, truly, rob you of a genuine experience. We are introduced to “the best ‘cut man’ in the business,” Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), whose latest fighter “Big Willie” Little (Mike Colter) has been two bouts away from a title shot for the last two years. We are given a peek into Frankie’s life and his philosophy second-hand via his ex-fighter buddy Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman). Eddie runs Frankie’s gym for him and serves as the narrator for our story. Freeman is, quite possibly, the best voiceover narrator around, yet I must admit that I grew concerned that his work here may fall a bit too close to his work as Red in The Shawshank Redemption. There is no need for concern whatsoever. Freeman’s work as Eddie is a complete departure from his work as Red. Simply put, the two characters couldn’t be further from one another.

We learn through a series of events, mostly surrounding his reluctance to set up a title shot for “Big Willie,” that Frankie is a protective trainer whose word must be final because he is unwilling to sway from what he feels is right. This opening conflict with “Big Willie,” his interactions with a slick “money man” named Mickey Mack (Bruce McVittie), and his eventual decision to leave Frankie for a new trainer and the promise of a title bout evolve slowly, yet they speak volumes in character.

Films aren’t made this way anymore. Usually, early conflict such as this is usually brought full circle in a “physical” climax in the third act. Here the events within the conflict shape decisions that the characters must make in the story to come. For instance, if you stub your toe on something while running around with no shoes on, you don’t take an axe to the object you ran into, but the event may encourage you to walk slower or be more cautious in the future.

Frankie’s past remains shrouded in deep, painful, secrets. He attends church more than anyone else in the parish and frequently engages in biting debates with Father Horvak (Brian O’Byrne) who insists that the only reason Frankie comes to mass is to ridicule and harass the young priest. Whenever the ribbing grows to be too much, Father Horvak asks Frankie whether he has written his daughter yet, to which Frankie replies “Everyday.” Horvak believes this to be a lie, but the pain in Frankie’s eyes tell another story, as do the letters marked “Return to Sender” found under his doorstep everyday.

Here is a safe way to illustrate the kind of depth Baby exudes without spoiling the meat of the film. Frankie’s interactions with Father Horvak, his cutting jabs at the faith, seem to suggest a deeper relationship between the two characters. Make of it what you will, but it would appear that Horvak “could have been a contender” but instead chose to pursue a life within the church. Perhaps this doesn’t sit well with Frankie; we never even know if the assumption is true or not, but the implication exists and like everything else in the film it serves a deep significance.

Of course, Frankie is influenced against his will to take up training tough Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank). Frankie initially replies, “Girlie, tough ain’t enough,” but later decides to give in because she is his only steady paying fighter at his gym. The decision to shy away from this development is critical, because expectations are both met and discarded in Eastwood’s process of telling his tale.

The real treasure here is found in the way Eastwood does the telling, in subtleties. He lets things lie as they are, and this is a technique that is not often found utilized by today’s directors. Perhaps some of this stems from Clint’s own philosophy, or perhaps much of this approach should be credited to ex-cutman turned author Jerry Boyd, who under the pen-name F.X. Toole compiled the inspiration for Million Dollar Baby, a series of short stories entitled “Rope Burns : Stories From the Corner .”

Surely the manner in which Frankie copes was likely shaped from Boyd’s accounts, but the presentation is what makes Baby shine, and that credit goes to Eastwood entirely.


Mario Anima

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