- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2005

It has become almost axiomatic that Clint Eastwood-in-twilight is all about apologizing for the many celebrations of rugged masculinity and vengeance he’s made since rising 40 years ago from the desert of the spaghetti Western.

I get the point, but I think, too, that Mr. Eastwood has shown consistent, underestimated artistry in pushing the envelope of genre movies while staying true to their basic elements. He lent noirish mysticism and eroticism to Westerns such as “High Plains Drifter” and “The Beguiled.” “Mystic River” was a Greek tragedy tucked inside a detective story.

“Million Dollar Baby” is a value-added sports movie that fits awkwardly into Mr. Eastwood’s pattern of penance, which emerged with the contemplative Western “Unforgiven” and continued through last year’s stunning “River,” in which violence begat more violence and tore apart a close-knit group of childhood friends.

This “Baby” is a girl, for starters: a hardscrabble Missourian (Hilary Swank) — self-described trailer trash, hailing from a family of low-class carbohydrate commandos — who demands access to a man’s-man’s world of brute violence. She finds redemption and self-actualization there, at a cost I’d love to, but won’t, explain further (you’d string me up me if I did).

When Maggie Fitzgerald (Miss Swank) desperately seeks his tutelage in the boxing ring, Mr. Eastwood’s crotchety Frankie Dunn, a cautious old trainer who runs a gym in a dodgy section of Los Angeles, scoffs that “Girlie tough ain’t enough.”

The line, spat hoarsely through what little is left of the 74-year-old icon’s larynx, borders on self-parody, but it neatly sets up “Baby’s” heartfelt first act, in which Frankie’s calloused epidermis — there’s a daughter who refuses communication and other deep pockets of unarticulated guilt that send Frankie to Mass daily — softens under the influence of a spunky young woman.

It takes persistent badgering from Maggie and subtle urging from Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a used-up, once-competitive fighter and Frankie’s only friend, to convince Frankie to give the girl, and female boxing generally, which he finds grotesque, a chance.

Frankie is risk-averse in his dotage, content to teach himself Gaelic and read his favorite poet, Yeats. (I haven’t read the F.X. Toole stories on which “Baby” is based, but I have a hunch the literary, Irish-Catholic tang in Frankie’s character didn’t feel quite as forced.)

The half-blind Scrap is the live-in janitor at Frankie’s gym. He looks after the various denizens who sweat and spar away their days there, including a bona fide contender (Mike Colter), a cocky wannabe (Anthony Mackie) and a piteous, mentally challenged oddball who calls himself Danger (Jay Baruchel) and has delusions of locking gloves with Thomas “Hitman” Hearns.

The always dignified Mr. Freeman brings a master’s touch to Scrap, the moral conscience of the movie. In fact, he’s “Red” from “The Shawshank Redemption” again. On screen, he’s the wearied observer who brightens anew at the presence of a great spirit; off screen, he’s the omniscient narrator with a hundred aphorisms about how life is lived in extremity.

As director, Mr. Eastwood is a little heavy-handed with Maggie’s tale of dispossession and tough luck. She doggie-bags scraps of food left on plates at the diner where she waits tables. She lives in a hovel and apparently can’t afford electricity. And her family, whom we meet in a pair of appalling episodes, is almost too hateable. They’re hillbillies with devil horns.

Besides those pointed excursions, “Baby” doesn’t drift often from its central threesome. Paradoxically, Mr. Eastwood is his usual unfussy self, full of laconic witticisms and wry smiles, but also a frame hog: Maggie racks up knockouts, and the camera zeroes in on the dry old guy instead of the jubilant Miss Swank.

Speaking of whom, Miss Swank is dazzling. Physically, she’s a specimen — sinewy, fleet on her feet and no slouch on the speed bag. The boxing sequences may not meet the highest standards of realism, but they’re more than passable. Artistically, she’s just as impressive; it’s as demanding a role as the one that won her Oscar (“Boys Don’t Cry”), and I expect she’ll have a shot at another trophy.

As Maggie overcomes hurdles of training and age — in her early ‘30s, she’s theoretically past her athletic prime — “Baby” looks like the first “Rocky” for girls: Crusty old trainer takes underdog to the top. It has the added sweetness of the old-timey affection between Frankie and Scrap, and a moving, father-daughter relationship that develops between Frankie and Maggie.

Then something very jarring happens. A hint of the violent tonal shift to come occurs in the gym while Frankie and Maggie are away in Las Vegas battling the Clubber Lang of female pugilism (Lucia Rijker). Mr. Eastwood executes the bridge between “Baby” 1.0 and “Baby” 2.0 with chilling precision.

Better just stop there, and sign off with this: For the second consecutive year, Mr. Eastwood has made an emotionally powerful, morally daring movie that sees endings not for their use in resolving complications but for their potential as bludgeons.

***

TITLE: “Million Dollar Baby”

RATING: PG-13 (Boxing violence; disturbing themes; mild profanity)

CREDITS: Directed by Clint Eastwood. Produced by Mr. Eastwood, Albert S. Ruddy, Tom Rosenberg and Paul Haggis. Screenplay by Mr. Haggis, based on stories from F.X. Toole’s “Rope Burns.” Cinematography by Tom Stern. Score by Mr. Eastwood.

RUNNING TIME: 132 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.milliondollarbabymovie.net

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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