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Million Dollar Baby

dir: Clint Eastwood
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Old Man Clint. It’s hard not to love him, especially when he makes films as good as this. Many will see this purely as an exercise in Oscarbait, but I disagree. I think Clint’s made plenty of films (I think about 25), has received a shitload of praise and awards over the years, and doesn’t need the added hassle of having to tailor everything to that end. I think he just likes making movies, especially since he’s 75 and isn’t really on the celebrity carousel for the column inches in the supermarket mags.

Lucky for us, he’s pretty good at it. He’s made a stack of duds as well, don’t get me wrong, but his great films more than make up for it. You can tote up Pink Cadillac, Absolute Power, Firefox, Heartbreak Ridge and those orang-utan movies as evidence of his crapness, but then my rejoinder has to be Unforgiven, White Hunter Black Heart, this here film and maybe Mystic River from the year before. If you take into consideration the great films where he just acted as well, it looks like an incredibly accomplished body of work for one man.

Add to that the fact that he’s a crusty old coot that’s reminiscent of the father or grandfather you never visit but wouldn’t mind seeing every once in a while to bask in the glow of his geriatric wisdom, and it makes him even more lovable.

Well here in Million Dollar Baby, he acts, stars, produces, does some of the music with his son and presumably takes care of the catering as well in an act of either supreme determination or monumental hubris. Based on a story from F. X. Toole’s collection of boxing stories Rope Burns, Old Man Clint’s made another masterly effort in both bringing this story to the screen and giving one of the best performances of his life.

Frankie Dunn is a crusty old coot who owns a boxing training gym called the Hit Pit. He’s spent his life in and around the fight game, working as a cutter (guy who cuts the skin around your eye open when your eyes are swollen shut), a trainer and a manager. One of his oldest charges, a boxer who lost an eye during a match that Frankie still feels guilty about, Eddie ‘Scrap Iron’ Dupris (Morgan Freeman), helps out at the gym and lives in the place as well, wallowing in its masculine squalor. Both men are damaged by time, by experience, and have ended up together in a curious kind of old age supportive relationship. So they bicker a bit and banter at each other over current minor stuff and hurts decades old. They’re like any decent old couple who don’t hate each other who have been together the majority of their lives.

That makes it sound a bit gay, but it’s not. Not that there’s anything wrong with the idea of Clint and Morgan getting it on. All that old, wrinkly flesh rustling and scraping as they rub against each other, mmm. No, actually that thought alone is pretty much enough to turn me off sex for at least a few minutes. But no-one’s asking you to imagine things like that. All you have to imagine is two old actors who are very good at what they do, one ancient director who really puts a great deal of exceptional work into directing a film that took a month to make, and one younger actress who you may or may not like but who gives this flick her all, and her all is a hell of a lot.

As the character of Maggie Hillary Swank unfortunately gives an Oscar worthy performance, unfortunate in that I had to endure her perfunctory speech at this year’s awards, where she thanked her accountants, lawyers, personal trainers, maids, the coolies that work in her banana plantation, the guy that gave her glandular fever back in high school everyone and anyone in creation. Including me, I think. She may have said that I was an inspiration to her.

Whatever her faults as a toothy actress, she is truly excellent in Million Dollar Baby. She plays a white trash waitress who survives by eating the leftovers off of her customer’s plates, who has one goal in life: to become a great boxer. I don’t know why she decides that boxing is important to her. I don’t know too many white trash waitresses, so I don’t know the life path that gets them to go in such a direction. Whatever her reasons, she chooses to follow this path with single-minded determination, with an all-consuming fire.

The film spends so much time on the whole fight game and Maggie’s rise to world domination that you’d be forgiven for mistaking the flick for a boxing film. Like a trans-gender Rocky, where someone with a dream goes on to become heavy weight champion of the world, and then win the Cold War by beating the Russians in one of the sequels.

Now I’ve got Dolph Lundgren’s badly-accented voice in my head uttering the immortal line ‘I must break you!’ and I don’t like it. Make it stop, please, for the love of Jeebus, make it stop.

But it’s not, really. Entirely about boxing, that is. The story treats the intricacies of boxing with respect and even reveals a lot of the background stuff that your average punter would never have had a clue about. The film is still, above and beyond about the relationships between Frankie and Eddie, and of course between Frankie and Maggie. Especially Frankie and Eddie.

Frankie, being a crusty old coot is entirely averse to the notion of training a ‘girlie’, to use his parlance, and resists Maggie’s intentions. Quite foolishly, as we know, because not only is her goofy enthusiasm inexhaustible, but we know his training of her is inevitable, for without it the film ends at the twenty minute mark and we’re all home an hour and forty minutes early so we can catch the latest reality television goodness that our TVs have to offer.

And that would have been a shame, because as the story progresses the characterisations become richer and the story achieves a depth you would neither expect nor necessarily want in your average boxing film, though it is well-placed here.

To say that the story is mostly understated and proceeds at a measured pace under Eastwood’s sure and steady hand would not be inaccurate. That makes it sound dull, but it’s not, I swear. Compared to any other films about women who decide to improve their lives by becoming boxers, I can safely say that this is one of the best. Seeing as there are only two films I know of with such subject matter (this one obviously and a little seen gem called Girlfight that starred Michelle Rodriguez), it’s a pretty thin field.

Despite the film’s critical success, I can’t imagine that there will be a genre explosion of female boxing flicks trying to jump on the bandwagon. Speaking very broadly, I think for most people the idea of women boxing strikes them as either really wrong or as an incredible novelty. Of course to people that think all boxing is morally or ethically wrong, or at least pretty fucked up, seeing women really belt the crap out of each other would be doubly horrifying.

You can argue whether it’s right or wrong until you’re blue in the face because of the belt you’re using for the autoerotic asphyxiation, but it’s not really a concern for me in the scope of the story. Maggie’s fight isn’t just literal, it’s symbolic of her entire life. She’s fought badly all her life against poverty and her own lack of education and is almost entirely invisible to others in this world. Unloved and unwanted by her swamp dwelling dole bludging family, her ambition somehow gives her entire life a meaning that has been absent thus far. Eddie sees it from the start, but Frankie is too old and crusty, and too wounded by his own family problems to see her potential until she’s practically already there.

It’s really quite a touching story, and it only gets even more heart-rendingly beautiful by the time it ends. It makes many hard choices in terms of where it takes the story, which give the movie its ultimate value beyond being some triumphant sports flick about the underdog rising up to defeat the favourite in the last seconds of the match etc etc bloody etc.

If the film has a fault, and it probably has several, it would have to be the appalling manner in which Maggie’s white trash family is represented. They are so unremittingly awful that I was wishing Clint would cross film genres and just shoot them. Then I thought about how simplistic their depiction is in a movie where everything else is given so much more depth, and I thought it was cheap and nasty that they be depicted so.

Apart from dealing with several emotional and ethical complexities, the film is an overall artistic success, all the same. The cinematography is perfectly suited to the material. I don’t think of Clint as being a pretentious man who does anything simply because he can or because it looks cool. There is a need in the story for the look of the cinematography, which sees consistent use of light and shadow to great effect. So, good on Clint for ordering the cinematographer around.

There is a moment towards the end of the film that affected me quite profoundly. It occurs where Frankie is talking to a priest about something that is reasonably, I dunno, important. What Clint does acting-wise here is truly one of the greatest moments in what is a very long career. I don’t think it could have meant as much at any other stage of his life; it is only now that he could have given it as much meaning as he gave it, and it will stay with me as one of the most transcendent film moments that I’ve seen in recent memory. It really… floored me. In a good way, not like he floored me when he sang with Lee Marvin back in Paint Your Wagon.

There are other great scenes, most any scene Frankie, Eddie or Maggie are talking to each other was pretty stong. Again, following on from the priest scene, a scene with Frankie and Maggie towards film’s end hit me like a punch in the chest, where he is translating a phrase in Gaelic for her. You wouldn’t think that any translation would be that emotionally affecting, but the fucker honestly had me in tears.

Still, all this praise shouldn’t perplex people too much or get them to have unreasonably abnormal expectations about it all. It’s a pretty modest flick in scope and realisation, it’s not going to make anyone convert to Christianity or convince them to like boxing. And though everyone involved puts in decent performances, Clint and Morgan Freeman give exactly the performances that you expect from them, so it’s hardly much of a revelation or a surprise. All the Oscars in this or any other world won’t convince all the potential viewers that this is truly one of the greatest movies ever made, at least of last year. They’ll be sitting there thinking from these glowing reviews that only by watching the film their teeth will straighten, their cocks will lengthen and their breasts will get firm and perky as well as keep them completely riveted, entertained and aroused for exactly two hours. And that’s not going to happen. I think most people will find this dull, honestly. I enjoyed the film because I had next to no expectations, if anything I had a negative expectation going in.

But if the idea of watching one woman beat the crap out of another woman turns you on, then maybe there’s something in this for you.

8 times you’ll grind your teeth and wish that white trash people could be represented with the respect and dignity they don’t deserve instead of looking and acting like the hillbillies from Deliverance out of 10

‘There is magic in fighting battles beyond endurance’ – Eddie, Million Dollar Baby