Eastwood in ruminative mode is preferable to Eastwood in gun-cocking mode, though you never feel he has left Dirty Harry entirely behind. Even in the more reflective, old-age phase of his film career, wisecracks and a gritty masculinity coat him like trail dust, keeping sensitive Clint from going too far over in the other direction.
That unshakable tough-guy attitude, now laced with despondency, characterizes Million Dollar Baby. Eastwood plays a former "cut man" and boxing manager, Frankie Dunn, who runs a gritty, sub-Dodgeball L.A. gym, the Hit Pit. His helpmate is Hit Pit manager, janitor and former boxer Eddie (Morgan Freeman), nicknamed "Scrap." Scrap is the kind of loyal black guy, always ready with the sponge mop, who affirms the white guy's humanity in the worst of Hollywood's lingering stereotypes. Every gesture in the film seems rigged to intensify our impression of Eastwood as a decent -- albeit gruff -- guy, including the affectionately fussing husband-and-wife banter between Scrap and Frankie.
When Frankie loses a promising young black fighter, he's caught in a weak moment. Despite a mantra that sounds like the dirty-knees sexism of Beaver Cleaver, "I don't train girls," Frankie reluctantly agrees to cross the gender gap and coach a scrappy, overage blue-collar waitress, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank).
Swank certainly embodies tough determination with her Charlize Theron Monster swagger and increasingly buff exterior, even if the reason why she craves victory in the ring never materializes. That working folks just yearn is as much of an explanation as we get from Eastwood and former television writer Paul Haggis' convention-hounded script.
Frankie, Maggie and Scrap form a triumvirate of losers determined to win. Maggie works her way up an increasingly fearsome chain of female boxers, including an East German prostitute, and becomes a kind of representative of Irish-Catholic, underdog pluck. For an instant, the trio tastes fisticuffs glory, until a sudden, surprise twist. Accusations of Million Dollar's seriousness and value as an intelligent, thoughtful drama, no doubt hinge on the way the film abruptly changes course from the expected Rocky-style sports film to something more probing as the characters' emotional dependency on each other becomes more clear. Frankie has been trying to make contact with his own estranged daughter for years, but to no avail. Maggie is a daddy's girl whose daddy is long departed. Those fractured family ties become a kind of plaintive backbeat that rat-tat-tats away as Frankie and Maggie use each other as substitutes for the real thing.
Though the inevitable comparisons to boxing films like Fat City or The Set-Up arise, there is none of the sense of deep, institutional pathos in Eastwood's vision of boxing's subculture.
Eastwood likes to give audiences villainy and virtue on a silver platter. For instance, when he introduces a scrawny Texas kid with a soft-boiled brain in the first act, eyed malevolently by a sadistic black boxer, you know that at some point the simple-minded boy is going to get his ass whupped.
Eastwood, being a self-made man himself, has always shown genuine sympathy for the kind of people so often ignored. But that doesn't also mean that he isn't above pillorying poor folk who won't pull themselves up by their bootstraps. His portrait of Maggie's people -- a cadre of evil Wal-Mart shoppers in tattoos and Universal T-shirts who can't wait to get their white-trash mitts on Maggie's prize money -- is both delicious and ludicrous. They are there to illustrate, in Eastwood's elaborate algebra of extracting audience sentiment, how decent and learned Frankie is in comparison, with his book of Yeats and hard-bitten, masculine integrity.
Eastwood has always been a mesmerizing, charismatic cinematic force, but as he ages, he threatens to transform into something mythic. Like John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart, we have watched that progression, and no small part of our affection for him is in watching a formerly virile man's man become a more fragile, soft-around-the-middle human being. It's hard not to feel a warm tenderness toward Frankie, in his essential loneliness and the way he hitches his pants up geriatric high and keeps his sweatpants on a hanger.
Eastwood's tightly wound hold on his emotions has become his most vital and powerful acting strategy. When he gets even the slightest bit tender, critics tend to give him the benefit of the doubt and imagine he is crying a river inside. Thus, the current critical genuflecting over Million Dollar Baby, as if Eastwood were De Sica and had a veritable The Bicycle Thief on his hands.
Eastwood seems to tap into something deep for certain fans and critics who buy Eastwood's patented combination of leather-tough bastards and gooey melodrama. It's a manipulative, hackneyed combination that can make him go down just as hard for the rest of us. As a result, much of the emotional power of Million Dollar Baby is inferred, rather than actually there.
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