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Clint Eastwood takes on the boxing movie

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His long and varied career in the motion picture industry --- as actor, writer, director, producer, even composer --- distinguishes Clint Eastwood from most of his peers. Because he runs his own production company and therefore generally controls almost every element in the making of his movies, he probably deserves that overused and much abused title of auteur more than any other filmmaker around. His talents, ambition, and commitment to his work place him in a unique position in American or even international cinema.

His independence from the commercial concerns of financial backers and the artistic timidity of production executives enables him to make the sorts of movies he believes in, which may not always equate with high critical praise and great profits. If he made such box office successes as Sudden Impact and The Outlaw Josey Wales, he also made such flops as Bronco Billy and Breezy. If he attempted some unprofitable works, like White Hunter, Black Heart and Bird, as courageous acts of personal and artistic homage, he also tried to glorify the invasion of Grenada with the jingoistic nonsense of Heartbreak Ridge.

His most powerful and significant pictures, however, have earned him both critical and commercial success and a long list of honors from many nations. Unforgiven won four Academy Awards, and more recently, Mystic River, probably the best film of 2003, won a couple of Oscars, though not all it deserved. Now, his new film, Million Dollar Baby, which he directed and stars in, though apparently enjoying a somewhat disappointing early reception, also belongs among the best titles of what has turned out to be a pretty good year at the movies.

Million Dollar Baby belongs in the most populous subgenre of sports films, the boxing flick, with the difference that it deals with a female fighter, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), pursuing the familiar route to a championship. A refugee from a trailer trash family in the Ozarks, Maggie, who trains on her own at the Hit Pit, a gym owned by Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), persuades Dunn to manage her professional career. The reluctant Dunn, a grizzled veteran known as the best cut man in the business, instructs her in all aspects of the science of boxing, and helps her through a series of decisive successes in the ring, which lead to a climactic and transforming shot at the world championship.

In the tradition of the good sports films --- decidedly a minority --- Million Dollar Baby employs its primary subject as a means to explore other, more important matters. Dunn's friend and assistant at the Hit Pit, the former prizefighter Scrap (Morgan Freeman), supplies, through both his own scenes and a voiceover narration, the history of their friendship and their mutual connection to the sport. He also discusses something of the poetry and philosophy of boxing, providing a running commentary on Maggie's progress and Frankie's personality.

In keeping with the traditions of its genre, Million Dollar Baby depicts a number of familiar elements --- the process of a fighter's arduous training, the visual demonstration of growth in knowledge and skill, the numerous (and surprisingly brutal) boxing matches. It also mixes both comic and serious matters essentially unrelated to boxing that define the personalities of its principals --- the squalor of Maggie's background, Frankie's daily theological quarrels with his parish priest, his humorously testy relationship with Scrap, and Scrap's genuine kindness and wisdom.

The relatively simple and familiar story of a hungry fighter's dream of success in the ring takes on additional meanings in the growing relationship between Frankie and Maggie. After realizing the greed and selfishness of her family, she understands that Frankie resembles the father she had loved and lost, while Frankie finds in her a substitute for the daughter from whom he has been estranged for many years. Their relationship and its ultimately tragic outcome constitute the real subject of the film.

The understated performances of Eastwood and Freeman, who absolutely inhabit their parts, constitute a useful background and context for the rather more energetic and emphatic acting of Hilary Swank. Both separately and together, all three work extremely well, but poor Hilary Swank really doesn't have a chance on the same screen with those guys; they assert their presence with a glance, a minor change of expression, a slight variation in vocal pitch, and simply take most of the scenes away from her.

The movie suffers from some slow pacing and repetition, but handles its boxing scenes with considerable conviction. Hilary Swank and her opponents fight far more skillfully and viciously than the female boxers who now and then appear on television, which may, alas, inspire other young women to enter a sport in which the object remains the disablement of one's opponent. Its story, its actors, and its significant emotional content, however, make Million Dollar Baby one of the best and most unusual boxing movies in years and a powerful film in its own right, a significant addition to the Eastwood canon.

Million Dollar Baby(PG-13), starring Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, Lucia Rijker; screenplay by Paul Haggis; based on a short story from Rope Burns by F. X. Toole; directed by Clint Eastwood.

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