A review of “Million Dollar Baby” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ****

Rating: PG-13 for athletic bloodshed, language and adult situations

Run Time: 2 hours, 12 minutes

 

 

          Hilary Swank and Clint Eastwood step into the ring in style, delivering a one-two punch as a determined fighter and her twilight-years trainer who never say die.

          Swank is a knockout as Maggie Fitzgerald, one step shy of white trash and unwavering in her decision to rectify it. Boxing is her ticket out and she hounds gruff guru Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) to train her until her incessant enthusiasm and excessive appearances at the gym wears him down.

          Observing from the sidelines (and narrating a la chocolate-voiced voice-over) is Scrap (consummate pro Morgan Freeman), a washed-up fighter and overseer of Frankie’s grimy L.A. corner known as the Hit Pit. He’s the yin to Frankie’s yang, the voice of reason and calmest port in the storm.

          The Hit Pit is home to pugilists-in-denial; the dreamers and has-beens who are the bitter foundation of this pugnacious sport.  Frankie’s own deep-seeded fears and boxing mantra “always protect yourself” don’t allow his fringe players to spread their wings and keep Frankie himself on emotionally stable ground.

          Frankie is a mass of contradictions, a guilt-ridden Catholic with an estranged daughter, a love of Yeats, and a mile-long list of irreverent issues to test his faith. He works his religious beliefs with the same fervor that he works Maggie, who exorcises her own demons with fiercely combative will. Together the pair overcome staggering personal odds and take Maggie all the way to the top, with heartrending consequences.

          Eastwood is a revelation, not only for his gritty and guarded performance but for the skill with which he directs (with finesse), produces (with guts) and scores (with a haunting flourish) this noirish masterpiece.

          What begins as a seemingly standard ode to the sport of boxing evolves into an uncompromising and darkly intimate portrayal of risk, resolution and dark, dark places. Baby’s old-school sensibilities are reminiscent of the Hollywood of yore – moody and nostalgic to the core.

A brilliant blindsider by decision.