Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” by Nick Pinkerton, Andrew Tracy, Michael Koresky, January 11, 2005
Somehow I’m always surprised by a new Clint Eastwood movie showing up in theaters, though it can’t be for lack of fanfare, as there’s an ever-increasing round of critical apoplexy surrounding each release from our beloved “old pro.” But all this noise stands in contrast to the way these films sidle onto screens; it’s that same natural and unaffected quality that shows in Eastwood’s approach to his subjects. Compare Todd Solondz’s “Happiness,” which smugly crowed the film’s (gasp!) show of compassion for a pedophile, to the quiet, firm empathy that “Mystic River” showed towards Tim Robbins’ sexually-conflicted character, or weigh the overwrought feminist bluff of “Girlfight” against the frankly-presented femme-fighters of “Million Dollar Baby.” Just change the gender of protagonist Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), and much in this film fits comfortably inside the template of a 1940s “hungry young pugilist” drama or John L. Sullivan’s autobiography. When veteran fight manager and “cut man” Frank Dunn (Eastwood) tells Fitzgerald “I don’t train girls,” it’s just a statement of established fact, not a sexist sneer.
“Million Dollar Baby,” following Dunn’s eventual mentoring of trailer-bred fighter Fitzgerald, is cheap-looking in a good way, tight like one of those old genre quickies — a trip to England is established with a stock helicopter shot of the Thames and a prominently placed Union Jack, and all of the movie’s visuals are as Spartan as the bedrooms of old men who live alone. Fitzgerald’s story is narrated by Morgan Freeman’s gym manager “Scrap,” whose voiceover takes on the aspect of a refrain, reiterating learned-by-heart speed-bag philosophy until it develops into a mantra, a way of life. Herein lies the core of the film; the emotional truths are resurrected in tired clich