Whatever French film critics may say, Clint Eastwood is no pure-hearted artiste—his favored working regimen consists of a thick, undressed cut of genre skirt steak or two interspersed between his headier engagements. For every Unforgiven, there’s an Absolute Power; for every Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, there’s a Blood Work. After the raging succès d’estime of last year’s Mystic River—its Oscar bank run as much of a sanctification as Unforgiven‘s big career-honoring win in 1993—Clint naturally brings his ambitions down to matinee earth. Million Dollar Baby is what you would presume it to be from its advertising: a heartfelt underdog boxing saga, in which Eastwood embodies the has-been-turned-grizzled trainer who stumbles upon a young champion and nurtures the rocket-to-Russia career he himself never had.
Hardly a passionate enemy of clichés, Eastwood at his storytelling best can override their essential cliché-ness; Unforgiven remains a Hollywood high-water mark for the subversion of classic formula by way of its own tools. Here, Eastwood’s grouchy L.A.-outskirts gym owner Frank Dunn—coming ready-made with a grown daughter who returns his letters unopened—resists the entreaties of one Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a 31-year-old white-trash nobody whose escape from her Southern trailer hellhole has boiled down to boxing, the only thing she “feels good doing.” Eventually, with the codependent prodding of gym flunky Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman, whose ash-dry wiseass inflections narrate the film in an unmistakably Shawshank register), Maggie is trained and put in the ring. Like us, Eastwood’s worried macho man ponders the fate of her sweet-natured good looks; indeed, after a handful of unadventurously staged fights, Swank’s nose should’ve looked like Owen Wilson’s. In any case, Maggie displays the spunk and heart and right hook of a phenom, and the two truck their ersatz father-daughter dynamic right through to a championship fight.
It’s to Million Dollar Baby‘s credit that the story lifts off from there, and the spoiler-spawning shift in narrative gears is as menopausally affecting as it is sentimental. For one thing, Clint weeps (a less epochal persona detour than “Garbo Laughs,” but still); for another, the issue of triumph or loss becomes emotional pocket change. Amid the slow accretion of intimacy between the awakening dad and the guileless lass with back muscles of iron, we have time to contemplate how Eastwood encourages his supporting players to impress the back rows (as a semi-retarded gym hanger-on, Jay Baruchel seems to be glory-hounding in a movie all his own). His visual punctuation (panning down to Maggie’s feet practicing footwork as she waits tables, etc.) tends to belabor the obvious. The chestnuts, from the conception of the Rocky III-like villainess boxer to half of the dated Ellroy-esque aphorisms that come out of Freeman’s mouth, are hard to digest.
All the same, Eastwood’s point of view has been seasoned enough to locate poignancy and respect for his protagonists where you least expect—saying it’s an old man’s movie is a serious compliment. Perhaps Million Dollar Baby should be seen as if it emerged from a movie-movie world Eastwood evidently still inhabits—the double-bill post-war 1950s and ’60s, when Don Siegel and Robert Aldrich could make strong, conventional B movies that never hoped for either awards or monster receipts, just an audience with more of an interest in old-school yarn spinning than spectacle or effect. If the movie stoops and creaks a bit, it comes by its afflictions honestly.