Category: films with numbers in the title / In category: 3 of 10 / Overall: 38 of 100
Following his Oscar-winning masterwork ‘Unforgiven’ in 1992, Clint Eastwood spent the next decade alternating between by-the-numbers mainstream fare (‘Absolute Power’, ‘True Crime’, the fun for forgettable ‘Space Cowboys’) and more interesting projects (‘A Perfect World’, the uncharacteristic ‘Bridge of Madison County’, the uneven ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’). None of them, however, quite hit the heights of ‘Unforgiven’, and by the time ‘Blood Work’ seeped onto cinema screens in 2002 it seemed like Eastwood was running out of steam.
Then, already in his 70s, Eastwood went hell for leather and produced, over the next eight years, an incredibly accomplished and impressive body of work: the unflinching Dennis Lehane adaption ‘Mystic River’, his first feature length documentary ‘Piano Blues’, the quadruple Oscar-winning ‘Million Dollar Baby’, the remarkably even-handed pair of war movies ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’, the somewhat over-amibitious ‘Changeling’ (perhaps the only Eastwood movie this decade that’s simply okay rather than anywhere between pretty goddamn good and freakin’ excellent), the powerhouse acting swansong ‘Gran Torino’ and the commendably old-school ‘Invictus’.
‘Million Dollar Baby’ is adapted from ‘Rope Burns’, a collection of short stories by F.X. Toole (the pen name of boxing trainer Jerry Boyd). It’s the story of people with broken lives trying to hold some semblance of dignity together while vying for a chance at the brass ring. Two of these people are old-timers: Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), a boxing manager and gym owner, and Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman), manager of said gym and a one-time prize fighter whose career went south.
Entering their lives like a whirlwind is Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), scion of a white trash family, who waitresses in a greasy diner by day and pounds the bag by night. She wants to be a fighter; wants a title shot. And she wants Frankie to train her. Frankie’s not struck on the idea. When Maggie originally approaches him, Frankie’s first two questions are, “Do I owe you money?” and “Did I know your momma?” It’s not long before he quits asking questions and just takes to grunting that he doesn’t train girls.
Long story short, Frankie ends up training Maggie. He gets her a title shot. Paul Haggis’s script doesn’t contain any real surprises, but avoids cliché by focusing on Frankie and Eddie’s relationship (which seems to be founded on semi-good-natured bickering) as much as on the developing kinship between Frankie and Maggie. It’s established early on that Frankie’s estranged from his daughter. Maggie, scorned by her ungrateful family, is without a father figure (her dad died). It’s to Eastwood’s credit as director that none of the thuddingly obvious parallels that Haggis draws – or his thuddingly obvious lurch into tragedy for the final act – swamp the film with mawkish sentiment. It’s as if Eastwood took the script outside and set about it with a carpet beater (or maybe a baseball bat) until every bit of schmaltz had been knocked out of it.
That’s what I love about Eastwood as a filmmaker: there’s no false sentiment. Nothing phoney. His films – particularly in the latter stages of his directorial career – are shot through with wisdom and hard-won insight. They are stamped with the mark of experience.
‘Million Dollar Baby’ is a low-key and, by its final stretch, resolutely downbeat film. It is mostly a film of interiors: Frankie’s gym, Maggie’s dingy apartment, run-down diners, the backrooms of boxing halls, the boxing ring itself. Eastwood’s style is observational. The truest insights are in the smallest details. A ruefully amusing scene has Eddie, shoeless feet propped on the desk, earn Frankie’s disapprobation for having holes in his socks. Frankie offers him some cash up front to buy a new pair. Eddie pragmatically declines the offer: “I couldn’t swear it wouldn’t find its way to the track.” It’s a great moment: it tells you all you need to know about Eddie. Likewise, Frankie’s beat up old car and too-neat house tell you all you need to know about him.
Indeed, the only time the film slips into the obvious is the portrayal of Maggie’s family. Haggis’s script takes the easy option, painting them in one shade. But that’s the only quibble I have with ‘Million Dollar Baby’. For a film that won Eastwood Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, a Best Actress gong for Hilary Swank and Best Supporting Actor for Morgan Freeman, it’s perhaps the least Oscar-baity film you’ll ever see.