Million Dollar Baby (PG-13)
Did Clint Eastwood die and go to heaven while I wasn't looking? Could that explain the hype that has accompanied his Hollywood standard boxing movie, Million Dollar Baby, to the Golden Globes and now to the Oscars, with critics and fans kneeling adoringly in the footlights?
Adapted for the screen by Paul Haggis and based on FX Toole's Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner, a book rejected 40 times before it was finally published, Million Dollar Baby employs every boxing clich known to both film and print. A grimy gym located in a sketchy alley, a grizzled former boxer turned trainer, his loyal sidekick "Scrap" (short for Scrap-Iron, a boxing name), tough contenders and pathetic hangers on, a sleazy manager named Mickey -- these elements compose the Hit Pit, the film's central locale.
The only original twist is that a 31-year-old woman, Maggie (Hilary Swank), works out at the Hit Pit and is determined that the gym's owner Frankie (Eastwood) will train her and make her a contender for the welterweight championship. Frankie's not keen on the idea of training a "girly," but Scrap (Morgan Freeman) greases the ropes, easing Maggie into Frankie's good graces and into the ring.
The scenes in which Maggie trains and then embarks on a knockout sweep, traveling from fight to fight, are sheer pleasure. Swank is all energy and optimism; Eastwood tapes together her cuts and offers advice from the corner while Freeman keeps the home fires burning at the Hit Pit. Loners all three, with apparently no friends or lives outside the gym, together they form a cozy if unconventional little family.
But intrusions of subplot and supporting characters mar the film irreversibly, and a melodramatic plot twist derails it about two-thirds of the way through. A retarded boy nicknamed "Danger" who frequents the gym, as played by Jay Baruchel, is embarrassingly overacted and shamelessly misused to give Scrap a hero moment. Maggie's redneck family from rural Missouri, in two hugely distracting scenes, might as well have been played by cartoon characters for all their pertinence and relation to reality. Was Eastwood trying to point out that family members can be inhumane to their own? If so, he should know better than to ruin the moment with such broadly drawn caricatures of lower humanity.
Eastwood underlights the film, creating a dark, shadowy look appropriate to a boxing film. His character, Frankie, is compelling in a quiet and mysterious way, and Eastwood's stealthy underacting works well, especially in private moments between Frankie and Maggie. Swank's good-natured performance breathes life into every scene in which she appears, until she is undermined by the story. One particularly engaging scene occurs in a rural gas station where Maggie makes eye contact with a little girl cuddling a puppy in the pickup truck at the next gas pump over. Swank smiles, her big teeth gleam, her eyes crinkle in pure goodness. It's beautiful.
Freeman is given too little to do as Scrap. Eastwood's Frankie, while interesting, remains an enigma. What did he do to make his grown daughter return the letters he religiously writes and sends to her every week? We are left to wonder while being asked to give him our pure, undeserved sympathy. And Swank should not be thanking Eastwood in gushing acceptance speeches for what he and the film ultimately do to her character in the name of drama.
Is Million Dollar Baby a masterpiece? Not by a long shot. Is it an exceptionally good B-movie? Yes. Except for that sucker punch of a plot twist that sends it to the corner in shame, disqualified.
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown