Pow! Right in the kisser

Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman, a manager and a former prize fighter, are fading away in the boxing business until Hilary Swank's character shows up, demanding a chance to train in the ring in Million Dollar Baby.

Clint Eastwood's 'Baby' puts a romantic back in the ring

A friend of mine recently described Clint Eastwood as "shaping up to be the poet laureate of crabby old guys." That's a fair label for Clint the actor - here's a man who defined a certain variety of macho in his youth, and has spent his golden years investigating the cracks, contradictions, and disappointments in that mythology. But behind the camera, Eastwood's reach spreads farther: not just to old men, but to the cinema's usually shallow understanding of violence, vengeance, and justice and, increasingly over the years, to the kind of tenderness that certain crabby old guys seem to acquire out of the blue. He's a skilled Hollywood craftsman who has developed a soul, slowly, before the public's eyes.

Million Dollar Baby is a stunner - insert your own K.O. metaphors here - that easily ranks among Eastwood's very best. It's a film you should know very little about when you walk in, but it's safe to tell you that it begins in one classic movie mode and ends in another. It has a big heart, big enough that some moviegoers will feel manipulated, but the sentiments ring true and reverberate as purely as the ringside bell.

The drawling, fresh-from-the-trailer-park Hilary Swank wants only one thing out of life, to box.
Back when boxing movies were commonplace, some of the best had a rundown, washed-up atmosphere that suggested they may have been made with secondhand crews, the scenes filmed after the cast of some other movie had left the studio for the night. Baby feels this way, set in a failing gym in a faded neighborhood, illuminated - barely - as if the producers were afraid the next electric bill might put them out of business.

In the movie's shadows live two men whose youths are far behind them: Eastwood and a half-blind Morgan Freeman (whose spellbinding voice narrates the picture) are manager and one-time pugilist who now run a gym together. They communicate with the easy, dry banter of men who know every embarrassing detail of each other's lives, and this relationship alone would be enough to stake a movie on.

But there's youth here to shake things up; not just a youngster, but a girl. The drawling, fresh-from-the-trailer-park Hilary Swank wants only one thing out of life, to box, and she knows Eastwood is the trainer for her in the way a homeless puppy recognizes its new best friend. He doesn't cotton to girl boxers, but she hounds him until he relents.

That's more than enough synopsis for this film. What follows is captivating in many ways.

   Million Dollar Baby

Dir. Clint Eastwood; writ. Paul Haggis, F.X. Toole; feat. Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, Jay Baruchel, Mike Colter, Margo Martindale, Bruce MacVittie (PG-13)

In the ring, the movie distills the thrill of punishment in a way that will excite even some of us who've never cared for this brutal sport. It offers both the exciting arrogance of invincibility and the horrific shock felt on the other end of the K.O. punch.

Outside the arena, Eastwood gives us characters whose real family ties have gone so sour (often thanks to their own mistakes) that artificial connections carry all the weight in the world. There's something here beyond the old "endearing kid wins over gruff oldster" routine. Or rather, it's like watching hackneyed dance steps made new by a master. The movie comes to resemble the vintage melodramas that once competed (or overlapped, as in movies such as Requiem for a Heavyweight) with boxing flicks. But Eastwood's hybrid is his own - reminding us what a pleasure it is to meet a crabby old guy whose heart has grown stronger, not weaker, with age.

By John DeFore

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