Friday, February 14, 2014

Million Dollar Baby

No matter how many times I've seen the film, there's a moment in Million Dollar Baby that hits me like a jab straight to the gut, far harder than any thrown inside the ring in this film about boxing, life, death, and balancing the consequences of all three. Even ten years later with the movie now available in a new Tenth Anniversary Blu-ray release I find myself reluctant to give away the twist for those who have not yet seen the film.

The movie is never about what you think it's about. While borrowing aspects of your run-of-the-mill sports film, the script by Paul Haggis travels a winding road of subtle and abrupt turns, much like life. Earning near universal praise, Million Dollar Baby took home Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director for Clint Eastwood, Best Actress for Hillary Swank, and Best Supporting Actor for Morgan Freeman. The film has aged well and, along with Sideways, The Incredibles, and Before Sunset, it remains one of my favorite films of 2004.

The story starts out much like any sports film. Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) was one of the best cut men in the boxing game. Now he owns a gym with the help of his old-time friend Scrap (Morgan Freeman). Despite his former glory, Frankie’s life is an empty one. He has an estranged daughter who he writes every week, but whose letters are always returned unopened. He attends Catholic mass every day without fail but finds neither the comfort nor answers which he seeks. 

After loosing his latest boxer to a manager who can guarantee the fighter a title shot, his life is largely without puprose when a thirty-one year old woman named Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank) walks into his gym hoping to convince Frankie to train her. Frankie isn’t interested in training a girl, but Maggie slowly starts to wear down his resolve.  Finally Frankie agrees and Maggie starts to live her dream in the ring.

The films performances across the board are top notch, and Eastwood’s direction shows a style that doesn't need to spell out everything for the audience, something which is sadly becoming a lost art in today's Hollywood. Although the tone shifts drastically during its second-half, each story is rooted in the foundations of Swank's acting and what is arguably the last great performance of Eastwood's career in front of the camera.

The world of Frankie and Maggie is filled with many odd and interesting stories that would be cut out of a lesser film. The best of these involving Danger (Jay Baruchel), a young man with absolutely no boxing talent who is constantly yelling out a challenge to fight Thomas "Hitman" Hearns, and Father Horvak (Brian F. O’Byrne), a preacher who Frankie torments on a daily basis with questions like "So is Jesus a Demigod?" The film's many plot turns and multiple stories are held together by Freeman's low-key narration which tells us as much about our characters as the sport of boxing. Freeman effortlessly finds just the right notes to bring the audience fully into this world.

Released ten years ago, Million Dollar Baby is now available in a new Tenth Anniversary Edition Blu-ray which includes the extras from previous editions (James Lipton's interviews with the cast, and featurettes on boxing and the creation of the film), the new edition includes a re-mastered sound, new commentary from producer Albert Ruddy, and a near half-hour look back on the film.

[Warner Home Video, $19.98]

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