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Laid bare in the ring

In 'Million Dollar Baby,' Clint Eastwood delivers a lean, emotionally daring tale set in the unforgiving world of boxing.

December 15, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

What can be said about Clint Eastwood that hasn't been said before?

That he's American film's last and best classicist, a 74-year-old director who's aged better than a "Sideways" Pinot Noir? That his increasingly fearless and idiosyncratic choice of material has made him more of an independent filmmaker than half the people at Sundance? That he continues to find ways to surprise audiences yet remain inescapably himself? It's all true, and never more so than in Eastwood's latest, "Million Dollar Baby."

Perhaps the director's most touching, most elegiac work yet, "Million Dollar Baby" is a film that does both the expected and the unexpected, that has the nerve and the will to be as pitiless as it is sentimental. A tale of the power and cost of dreams set in the unforgiving world of professional boxing, it's got some of the emotional daring of the great melodramas of Hollywood's golden age, when films considered it a badge of honor to wear their heart on their sleeve.

"Million Dollar Baby" also reconfirms what "Mystic River" and its Oscars for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins made clear: that Eastwood, despite his legendary no-nonsense style, has become a gifted director of actors. It's not just the exceptional work by costars Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman that stands out here, it's Eastwood's own performance, in some ways the most nakedly emotional of his 50-year career.

As with "Mystic River," Eastwood has started with commanding material, a debut collection of short stories by the late F.X. Toole called "Rope Burns," which was published in 2000 when its author, a trainer and licensed cut man for more than 20 years, was 70 years old. A writer whose knowledge of boxing was matched by his lean skill with words, Toole, like Eastwood, was a traditionalist who saw value in the old ways.

Paul Haggis, a writer with extensive television credits, including creation of the acclaimed "EZ Streets," adroitly combined two of Toole's stories into the "Million Dollar" script, using the narrator of one to tell the tale of the second and fleshing it all out with touches that rarely seem extraneous to the story's main drive.

Eastwood, who has perhaps the best eye in the business for the kinds of roles an aging star should be playing, is Frankie Dunn, a trainer and manager who owns a ramshackle gym in downtown L.A. all too appropriately named the Hit Pit.

Cantankerous as well as querulous, Frankie Dunn still manages a contender or two, but his reluctance to push his top man for a title fight speaks to a sense of pulling back, of disconnecting from life. He is painfully but apparently permanently estranged from his only child, a daughter, and he only goes to church to wind up the priest. Studying Gaelic is his sole pleasure and, with a single exception, ring rust has formed on his personal relationships.

That exception would be his right-hand man, Eddie "Scrap Iron" Dupris (Freeman), an unflappable blind-in-one-eye former boxer who has run the Hit Pit day-to-day for 17 years. It's Dupris' extensive voice-over that gives us the context for the unfolding story, garnished with home truths about boxing gleaned from Toole's stories.

Eastwood and Freeman not only share similarly laid-back styles, they've worked together before, in Eastwood's "Unforgiven." Seeing them trying to genially out-underact each other is one of "Million Dollar Baby's" most satisfying pleasures; a scene in which they share a conversation about, of all things, socks, is a master class in how understated acting can be used to magnificent effect.

Into this hermetic world comes Maggie Fitzgerald, a completely different type of person. A hardscrabble young woman well aware of her white trash background, Maggie has focused her entire life on a single goal: having Frankie Dunn mold her into the best fighter she can be. Boxing, she says, is "the only thing I ever felt good doing," and giving up on that feeling is out of the question.

Both physically and psychologically, Swank, who put on 17 pounds of muscle during three months of boxing training, inhabits this role as she has no other since "Boys Don't Cry," for which she won an Oscar. Her Maggie has a feral intensity that combines with a heartbreaking eagerness and a megawatt smile to devastating effect. This is not an actress for surfacey roles; Swank's gift is bringing complete believability to the most extreme, most willful and passionate of characters.

Maggie's determination notwithstanding, Frankie Dunn, traditionalist that he is, does not believe in training women to box, calling it "the latest freak show out there." He's dismissive of her chances for success in the plainest language he can find. Of course, it's a given, especially with the looming possibility of a surrogate father-daughter relationship, that Frankie will relent and take her on, but rather than being the end of their story, that is the merest beginning.

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