The films directed by Clint Eastwood (and sometimes starring him as well) have been, to be honest, of variable quality, but some–“Unforgiven,” “Mystic River”–have been truly extraordinary, and his latest falls into that category. “Million Dollar Baby” starts out as a formula movie–an old-fashioned (though starkly atmospheric) boxing picture about a grizzled old manager and gym owner named Frankie Dunn (played by Eastwood) who, very reluctantly, takes on as his new charge Maggie (Hilary Swank), a thirty-one year old woman without any professional experience who’s desperate to surmount the bleakness of her life in the ring. The first two thirds of the picture follow a trajectory that’s fairly familiar in such films (though the gender switch is, despite “Girlfight,”still pretty new): the gruff old fellow, encouraged by his pal Scrap (Morgan Freeman), an ex-boxer who lives at the gym and serves as sort of assistant to Dunn, nurtures Maggie’s drive and raw talent until she unexpectedly becomes a real contender. Even here, however, Eastwood gives the material a feeling of sad weariness that’s quite powerful, though it’s also tinged with quirkiness and dark humor: Dunn is portrayed as a committed Catholic whose relationship with his daughter has long been strained (he writes her every week, but the letters are always returned unopened), but at the same time he’s teaching himself Gaelic and is an avid reader of Yeats, and he pesters his long-suffering priest with mischievous theological questions the pastor rightfully takes as jokes. The banter between Frankie and Scrap veers from the drily comic to the nostalgically bitter, too. An early subplot, in which Frankie is abandoned by his previous fighter (Mike Colter) for a more connected manager just as the youngster is on the verge of big-time success, adds to the atmosphere of over-the-hill melancholy that pervades the piece–especially since the boxer’s defection stems from Dunn’s caution in bringing his charges up too fast, something that both recalls his earlier connection with Scrap and colors his attitude toward Maggie as her prospects improve.
Eastwood lays all of this out with an economy that’s very impressive, and his own spartan, laconic performance–as well as Swank’s excellent trailer-trash turn (easily the best thing she’s done since “Boys Don’t Cry,” though that might not be saying much) and Morgan’s customary noble gravitas–give it a richness and depth that transcends mere genre status. Nor does he overemphasize the script’s most obvious element, which is made even clearer after Maggie’s horrible mother (Margo Martindale) is introduced–the fact Frank becomes the girl’s surrogate father, and she a sort of replacement for the daughter he’s lost. Even if the picture didn’t go beyond this formulaic scenario and stayed on the reverse-gender “Rocky” path, it would still at least come out ahead on points. But “Million Dollar Baby” takes a twist that lands like a wrenching blow to the stomach and moves the film into far more profound territory, as morally challenging and complex as that explored by “Mystic River.” It wouldn’t be fair to reveal precisely what the narrative turn is; suffice it to say that the final third of “Million Dollar Baby” transforms what had been a finely-tuned but somewhat conventional sports saga into a life-and-death tragedy of raw emotional power.
There are, unhappily, some flaws along the way. The film is very heavily narrated by Scrap, and though there is a payoff to all the talk, it doesn’t quite make up for the quantity of it. (And Freeman, once again, is asked to do too little; this fine actor conveys an air of resigned dignity better than almost anyone else, but he’s capable of much more.) A subplot involving a hapless would-be pugilist named Danger (Jay Baruchel) whom Scrap takes under his wing, moreover, is the sort of counterpoint to the main plot that comes across as entirely too heavy-handed (and an obvious opportunity for some strutting by his gym companions and an act of heroism by old Scrap). But the failings fade into insignificance when the story of Frankie and Maggie is in the center of the ring. Beautifully shot in greys and browns by Eastwood’s ace cinematographer Tom Stern, designed with elegant simplicity by veteran Henry Bumstead, and complemented by a score from Eastwood that seems as gaunt and unvarnished as the star himself, “Million Dollar Baby” is a knockout movie, probably the best boxing drama since Rod Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight” of more than forty years ago.