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With: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, Jay Baruchel, Mike Colter, Lucia Rijker, Brian O'Byrne, Anthony Mackie, Margo Martindale, Riki Lindhome, Michael Peña, Benito Martinez, Bruce MacVittie
Written by: Paul Haggis, based on stories by F.X. Toole
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, some disturbing images, thematic material and language
Running Time: 132
Date: 12/15/2004
IMDB

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Punch-Drunk

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After the success of his epic Mystic River, Clint Eastwood could have retired with grace and style. But instead he has done it one better, and with a much smaller, humbler story.

Based on F.X. Toole's contemporary collection "Rope Burns," Million Dollar Baby might have been a pulp story from the 1940s without much tinkering. Aging boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) runs a gym with former boxer Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman). The two of them have a sad, little-discussed past together. Though they banter with crusty humor about what type of bleach to buy, Frankie looks with regret at his one-eyed partner.

A scrappy girl fighter, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), turns up at the gym, rhythmlessly but enthusiastically hammering at the punching bags. She begs Frankie -- who has just lost his potential champ -- to train her, but Frankie wants nothing to do with girls. Eventually he gives in, and leads Maggie to a meteoric rise through the female fight ranks.

"Scrap" narrates this story with enough wisdom to know that this tale has been told before and will be told again. We also come to realize that through his telling, the story has been romanticized to fit a certain mold of the broken-down dime novelist who has inhaled too much smoke and ringside sweat.

Eastwood directs with classical sure-footedness, channeling the story-punchers of old, especially John Huston and John Ford. His action sequences back away from the neo-brutality of Raging Bull, but he instead keeps the movement clear and brisk, using overhead shots to establish placement before zooming home for the punch.

When his story turns on a dime from boxing thrills to tragedy, he handles it smoother than a left hook. He effortlessly segues from the macho world of Dirty Harry to the heartbreak of The Bridges of Madison County in one film.

It goes without saying that the actors more than live up to the material. Swank uses her toothy beauty to convey a kind of trailer park eagerness for her impossible dream, while Eastwood and Freeman beautifully underplay their parts, using a minimum of movement so as not to stir the film's deep, liquid shadows.

Million Dollar Baby shows the 74 year-old Eastwood at the top of his game, crafting not just another in a string of masterworks, but also one of the greatest boxing films of all time.

This review originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Note: (February 28, 2005) Million Dollar Baby took home four Oscars from the 77th Annual Academy Awards last night: for Best Picture, one for Best Director (Clint Eastwood), Best Actress (Hilary Swank) and Best Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman).

DVD Details: Warner Home Video has released a beautiful, three-disc set just in time to ease the summer movie doldrums. Unfortunately, even with such a hefty package, it feels rather skimpy. The movie itself comes on disc one, while disc two comes with three featurettes: one on boxing, one interviewing the producer and the writer about the origins of the film and a post-Oscar interview with Eastwood, Freeman and Swank. Disc three is actually a CD-soundtrack with Eastwood's beautiful piano-laden score. The extras are insignificant enough that they easily could have fit on one disc, and the soundtrack is available separately, so I'm not sure what the fuss is about. Moreover, the set makes Million Dollar Baby out to be a great achievement in American film, which is true, but it should be enjoyed for what it is: a beautiful, perfectly-crafted boxing flick, rather than a Significant Work of Art.

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