Much like director Clint Eastwood's previous film, "Mystic River," his new one, "Million Dollar Baby," is filled with musings on redemption, friendship and the tribulations of reckoning with life's disappointments.
To display these ideas, Eastwood has historically upheld a palpable urgency, while filling them with laconic, deep-in-thought characters set to a remarkably patient pace. In "Million Dollar Baby," the latter of the two criteria are intact, which is a plus. Unfortunately, his palpable urgency is hardly upheld to any commendable level. Instead, the film's suspense sputters, dwindles, comes back again, and forces itself upon the audience, resulting in an uncharacteristically-unsure-of-itself Eastwood picture.
Eastwood stars as Frankie Dunn, a hardened boxing trainer with salt-and-pepper hair whose carefulness drives his most promising client — and dreams of coaching a championship boxer — away.
Frankie wallows in former glory and deadpan regret with fellow old-timer and former protégé Eddie (Morgan Freeman in the film's best performance). Eddie convinces Frankie to train hardworking waitress Maggie (Hilary Swank), and the two eventually create an affinity after a painful succession of "I don't train girlies" clichés. Frankie finds in Maggie the daughter he's lost touch with, the reliance and admiration that others used to set upon him; Maggie finds a father figure to offset her hillbilly familial past.
With the action set in a downtrodden but nevertheless homey gymnasium, a metaphor for all three characters' underlying emotional states, Eastwood creates an admirably minimal yet potent environment up to a certain point. A stronghold for many of Eastwood's films is his ability to withhold characters' thoughts and insecurities and allow, instead, for the viewer to relate and contemplate — oftentimes substituting action for dialogue at points of revelation.
In "Million Dollar Baby," though, the film's script (written by Paul Haggis and based on the writings of F.X. Toole) seems thematically spoon-fed as its protagonist reads W.B. Yeats aloud several times — illustrating his emotional solitude — and speaks in Gaelic and attends church every morning without really participating, which illustrates his Catholic guilt.
Eastwood makes up for the film's initial mediocrity with the last 10 minutes, however. Admittedly it's as gripping and telling an ending as any of his previous work and is worth the laborious wait. The striking critical acceptance of "Million Dollar Baby," though, which found the film topping many prestigious 2004 best-of list, isn't so much surprising — critics love to applaud icons — as it is unwarranted given last year's stellar film calendar.
This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Jan. 27 2005.