Million Dollar Baby 4.0 stars

It would have been understandable if, after the exertions of Mystic River, Clint Eastwood were to revert to the relaxation mode of Blood Work, Space Cowboys, True Crime, Absolute Power. For a while, it would appear he had done just that. This sets up as a nice, light workout of fight-film conventions, smooth and steady, barely breaking a sweat. But ultimately it takes shape as more than just an old-fashioned fight film, really more a relationship film, with the Eastwood character — a gruff and guilt-ridden Irish Catholic trainer, manager, and cut man — taking under his wing a feisty female fighter who becomes a surrogate daughter to replace the biological one with whom he has lost touch, and who in turn needs a surrogate father. The boxing, almost inevitably, is ridiculous, a blur of first-round knockouts, two punches, three punches, in total contradiction of the heroine's diagnosed handicap as a late-starter. While not nearly as ambitious, not remotely as career-defining, as Mystic River, it proves in the end to be a film of remarkable gravity and bravery. No quick knockout itself, it is more like a late-round TKO, a well-paced war of attrition. You will likely feel, at the completion of Eastwood's standard two-and-a-quarter hours, that you have come down a long road; been somewhere; been through something. The director, as always, takes his time yet doesn't linger, doesn't build things up too big, doesn't bleed them dry. He understands the value of understatement. He understands a ballad is not an opera. And where he, in the excruciatingly emotional Mystic River, sent out Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon to do his crying for him, he here dares to give it a try himself, and he does quite all right at it. Significantly, Eastwood's tears are shed, in the presence of a priest, over the prospect — the very thought — of taking another life. He thus continues his self-imposed penance over the bodies he has left littering the screen in his wake. Which is to say, the wake of the Man with No Name, Dirty Harry, Josey Wales, et al. More than just the custodian of classicism in Hollywood filmmaking, Eastwood has become — in the broadest, most inclusive sense, not strictly a moral sense — the conscience of American cinema. Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman. 2004.

Duncan Shepherd

  • Rated PG-13

This movie is not currently in theaters.

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