Clint Eastwood delivers one of his best performances to date in one of his best directed pieces to date, and Hilary Swank proves "Boys Don't Cry" was not a fluke. With his last two films, Eastwood has established himself as one of the best directors out there, and Swank, facing a possible second Best Actress Oscar, has shown she is here to stay.
"Million Dollar Baby," a boxing movie that far outweighs its terrible title, stars Swank and Eastwood as a 31-year old boxer and her trainer, respectively. Though hesitant to work with her at first due to her sex and her age, Eastwood's derelict and brooding character sees something in her and decides to take her on, leading her to great success as she proves to be one of the best female boxers in the world. They soon form a close father-daughter bond, but, unfortunately, not everything ends happily.
Though "The Aviator" marginally deserves the Oscar over "Million Dollar Baby," and "Mystic River" is Eastwood's better film by a hair, "Million Dollar Baby" is one of the most outstanding movies of 2004 and easily one of the best boxing movies ever to grace the silver screen. Though the ending is rather heavy-handed compared to the first two acts, Eastwood balances the majority of the film with ease, avoiding the hardcore grit as seen in such films as "Raging Bull" while never shying away from the difficult stuff when need be. The movie is surprisingly funny, sprinkled with Eastwood's dry and straightforward humor even when times are tough. Paul Haggis, his screenplay based on the "Rope Burns" stories by F.X. Toole, has created a masterpiece here.
There are those who like boxing movies and those who don't, but neither will be disappointed. The movie doesn't end with a magnificent showdown with a brutish 500-pound woman, but there is more than enough boxing glory sprinkled throughout. Though at times Eastwood drops the camera right into the fight, the boxing isn't as intense as seen in a few other movies, but the suspense is still there - when Swank isn't knocking out the competition.
"Million Dollar Baby" is funny and at times exciting, but it is still a drama, and Eastwood proves yet again his powerful understanding of realistic emotion. He builds up several interesting, likable yet flawed characters, but when things get harsh he doesn't just slap the audience and expect them to cry. The final act is a rather severe change of pace from the first two-thirds of the movie, but Eastwood handles it effectively. A few people may find the ending a bit manipulative, but that's the story and as stories go, it's pretty damn good.
As far as acting goes, little need be said. Though I haven't seen Imelda Staunton in "Vera Drake," Swank deserves an Oscar. Eastwood is the finest I've ever seen him; like wine, he seems to get better with age. Morgan Freeman also is a viable contender for Best Supporting Actor, though the power of his character didn't blow me away.
"Million Dollar Baby" is one of the best movies of 2004. Eastwood, as both an actor and director, delivers one of his finest efforts of his long and illustrious career. And Swank is no longer a one-hit wonder.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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