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'Million Dollar Baby': A One-Two Punch To the Emotions

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff writer
Friday, January 7, 2005; Page C01

It might only be a coincidence that the character played by Clint Eastwood in "Million Dollar Baby" bears more than a passing resemblance to Eastwood the director. Frankie Dunn, the irascible old cuss who reluctantly takes on a young female boxer named Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), is a man of few words, whose strictly-business approach to training is to strip his fighters "down to the bare wood." At the same time, Frankie has a flair for ballyhoo, evidenced by the flashy silk robe he designs for Maggie -- emblazoned with a Gaelic nickname that quickly catches on with her fans -- and the bagpipe players he commissions to escort her into the arena before a pivotal fight. Underneath Frankie's crusty exterior lies the romantic heart of an unabashed showman.

The same could be said for Eastwood, who directed, produced and composed the music for "Million Dollar Baby." To tell this absorbing story of an unlikely May-December friendship, set against the grit and grandeur of the boxing world, Eastwood uses the same filmmaking basics -- good writing; a timeless, textured visual style; and simple, straightforward narrative -- that made such past films as "Unforgiven" and "Mystic River" so admired. As in those films, "Million Dollar Baby" proves the famously taciturn Eastwood is not afraid of big emotions; what starts out as a lean but heartwarming tale of determination and loyalty becomes a full-blown three-hankie melodrama by its wrenching third act. As an actor and as a filmmaker, Eastwood may not go in for flashy gimmicks or look-at-me antics, but in his own hard-bitten way, he's as adept at modern-day tear-jerkers as the masters of the 1940s and 1950s.

The strength of "Million Dollar Baby" is in the relationships among Frankie (Clint Eastwood), Scrap-Iron (Morgan Freeman) and Maggie (Hilary Swank). (Merie W. Wallace -- Warner Bros Via AP)

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The result is the kind of movie they don't make anymore -- a real crowd-pleaser. Between the timeless look and tone of the film -- set in such locales as Frankie's grimy gym, the Hit Pit, as well as retro-looking coffee shops, boxing rings and a Hopper-esque roadside diner -- and archetypal characters that only occasionally slip into caricature, "Million Dollar Baby" has the sort of universal aesthetic and themes that can appeal as much to teenagers as to their parents and even grandparents (assuming, of course, that no one will faint at the sight of a young woman's broken nose cracked back into place, or copious amounts of blood).

Based on a book of short stories by F.X. Toole (the pseudonym of the late ringside assistant Jerry Boyd), "Million Dollar Baby" is as lean, if not mean, as the boxers at the Hit Pit: Dispensing with lots of back story, it simply introduces Frankie as a "cut man" -- the guy in the corner who swabs up a boxer's seeping cheek or split eyebrow -- with some deep-seated issues. He's a good trainer, even a great one, but he chokes when it comes time to get his fighters title bouts; he attends Mass every day but regularly engages his priest in playful theological debates; he's estranged from his daughter for reasons unknown.

When Maggie arrives on the scene like a melting-eyed stray puppy, he wants nothing to do with her. It takes his best friend and gym janitor "Scrap-Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman) to convince Frankie that Maggie might be worth another look. As with Frankie, we're not told much about Maggie or how she came to discover that, at 31, she's destined to become a champion boxer. All we know, from the montages of her workouts at the Hit Pit and her life as a waitress at a local cafe, is that she's a young woman of extraordinary discipline, self-confidence and physical strength. (This doesn't impress Frankie, however: "Girlie, tough ain't enough," he tells her, sharing one of many of his signature aphorisms.)

Although "Million Dollar Baby" takes its sweet time getting there, the audience knows it's a foregone conclusion that these two people of integrity, subtle wit and hidden depths (Frankie reads Yeats in Gaelic) will adopt each other as family. But its predictability doesn't make their collaboration any less gratifying, especially when Maggie begins her fighting career in earnest.

Eastwood films these sequences with the verve and immediacy of the great boxing films, and no matter where you stand on the morality of pugilism, you can't deny that few sports lend themselves so readily to the movie camera. Juxtaposing these scenes of visceral, even animal, energy with the affectionate verbal sparring between Frankie and Scrap back at the Hit Pit, Eastwood creates a world that, while defined by the willingness and ability to punch the daylights out of someone else, hews to its own upstanding conventions of honor and courage. These are tough guys with hearts of gold, and if filmgoers can't see that, they'll surely hear it in Freeman's soothingly poetic narration of the tale.

But conventions, however comforting, can also veer into cliche, and "Million Dollar Baby" has more than a few, most of them in the form of any character with a Southern accent. A dimwitted denizen of the gym nicknamed Danger seems to be the live-action version of Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel from "The Simpsons." And it seems that Maggie's good-for-nothing family back in the Ozarks could have been more effectively drawn without the tattoos, gimme caps and over-the-top venality.

Still, the heart of "Million Dollar Baby" lies in the core relationships among Frankie, Maggie and Scrap, friendships so pure, so genuine, so authentic that it takes actors of Eastwood's, Swank's and Freeman's caliber to sell them in this otherwise cynical world. And it takes a filmmaker as adroit as Eastwood in blending restraint and old-fashioned schmaltz to create movies that shamelessly, and even by design, can make a grown man cry.

Million Dollar Baby (137 minutes, at Loews Georgetown) is rated PG-13 for violence, brief profanity and some disturbing images and themes.

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