Million Dollar Baby

on December 15, 2004 by Annlee Ellingson
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"People love violence," Morgan Freeman growls in Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby." It's not a startling revelation for a culture of sports fans who cheer as NFL quarterbacks get swarmed in the pocket and watch NASCAR drivers race in circles, hoping there'll be a fiery crash.

Still, boxing is different. In boxing there's only one objective--to beat the other guy (or gal) up; better yet, to knock them unconscious--that isn't camouflaged by a superficial goal like moving a ball down the field or crossing the finish line first. There's a brutality to it that some of even the most ardent sports fans can't stomach.

"Baby" aims to articulate the sport's appeal: "Boxing is about respect--getting it for yourself and taking it away from the other guy." And how the "magic of boxing is fighting beyond endurance, through cracked ribs and detached retinas. The magic of risking everything for a dream that no one sees but you." One isn't completely convinced by the end of the film that the point has been made, but the attempt is a valiant one, as Eastwood, who directed, produced and starred, focuses not on the triumphs but the dark side of boxing.

Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank, resurrecting her boyish mannerisms from "Boys Don't Cry") wants to be a champion fighter, and she's determined to have legendary trainer Frankie Dunn (Eastwood, playing a not unfamiliar affected curmudgeon) help her do it. Frankie resists: At 31 she's too old to begin training. Oh, and she's a girl. Eventually, with the covert influence of Frankie's pal Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris (Freeman), an ex-fighter who lives at Frankie's gym, Maggie wears him down. Her ascent through the minor leagues is swift and decisive. Swank, fantastically fit, does all of her own fighting, and the camera, handheld and close-up in the ring, isn't afraid to show it for action sequences that emulate the thrill of a live match. Meanwhile, Frankie, who's never taken a fighter to the top, finds his new protege filling an emotional hole left by his estrangement with his own daughter, and, in the right light, the deep crevasses in Eastwood's face are his unshed tears.

As the picture reaches its feel-good, "Rocky"-esque climax, however, something shocking but not unexpected happens, and the film takes a sharp turn in a new direction. What follows fits thematically with everything that we have been told about what boxing is about. But it's from an entirely different movie, and, after the hour and 45 minutes leading up to the pivotal event, there isn't time to allow it to develop satisfactorily. Starring Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Paul Haggis. Produced by Clint Eastwood, Albert S. Ruddy, Tom Rosenberg and Paul Haggis. A Warner Bros. release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for violence, some disturbing images, thematic material and language. Running time: 132 min

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