Who would have thought that Rowdy Yates would, at seventy-five years of age, have nearly fifty starring roles under his belt, along with twenty-five directorial efforts, several of which have received Oscar recognition. Clint Eastwood is a legend. From The Man Who No Name to Dirty Harry, Unforgiven to Mystic River, he has made his mark both in front of and behind the camera. He's done westerns, he's done cop movies, murder mysteries and thrillers, biopics and even comedies but he's never done a boxing movie, let alone a female boxing movie. That is, until now.
“If there's magic in boxing, it's the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you.”
Frankie Dunn is a veteran trainer who runs his own gym. When a prize-fighter drops Dunn to let another manager take him to the Championship Title, he decides that maybe he's too old to train anymore and contents himself with just running the gym but a spirited young woman turns up at his doorstep desperately wanting to be trained. Now Frankie is old school - he doesn't train women - but after several weeks of coming back daily to practice, this new fighter finally starts to get his attention. He sceptically decides to take her on for a probationary period but despite all of his cynicism about her staying with him, once she becomes successful, she keeps coming back to him and remains loyal. Pretty soon they both find themselves facing big decisions and big fights, big victories and big tragedies and throughout it all they may not have nobody else to rely on but they have one another.
Clint Eastwood has done it again with this fantastic, heart-warming and heart-breaking drama. Originally only supposed to be acting in it, he ending up directing, producing and scoring it as well, fashioning a masterwork of blood, sweat, love and tears. I don't know how he manages to take a genre that you think has been done to death - Westerns, Murder Mysteries, even Boxing dramas are all the rage now - and still make a film that stands apart from the rest. Where someone like Spielberg will generally forge the benchmark for most genres he dips into, Eastwood tends to make movies that play against type and are unique for it. Beyond that, another trend has emerged from his directorial efforts: his abhorrence of violence - A Perfect World, Mystic River, Unforgiven and now Million Dollar Baby all showcase the horrors of violence, almost the complete antithesis of the tough guy shoot-first-ask-questions-later persona people expected from him during his earlier acting years. It makes every new film from him unique and enthralling, thoughtful and touching. Their very nature of anti-violence makes them atypical in each particular genre and almost every recent production I have seen from him has left me a great deal to think about when the credits run. This was no exception.
“Boxing is an unnatural act. Everything in boxing is backwards.”
At the centre of it all, of course, is the man himself. Despite casting the formidable Hilary Swank in the lead role or the great Morgan Freeman in a part which was designed to occasionally overshadow his own, Clint still remains the star. This was his movie, his journey for redemption, his tale of just one more fight and one more fighter. The fact is he was so in control of this movie that he was content to sit back and let the other actors shine - so much so that I can see why they won the awards where he was only nominated, even if I still thought he was superb. Then we've got Hilary Swank, who sure knows how to pick tough stories. From the harrowing Boys Don't Cry to the excellent but murky thriller Insomnia, she has taken on some demanding roles and can clearly hold her own against the big boys. Here her feisty, passionate female boxer, Maggie, is remarkably challenging and she pulls it off with aplomb. Even more striking than her or Eastwood's performances is that of Morgan Freeman, who previously collaborated with him on the excellent Unforgiven. Playing an ex-fighter who was left so messed up that now he sweeps Dunn's gym, he also narrates the entire story, offering a subtle counterpoint to Dunn's gruff mentor. Freeman is on top form and well deserving of his Oscar.
So once again Clint Eastwood has created a memorable meaningful movie, with a central trio of fantastic performances, a sharp script, surprisingly original story and a superb score. It may have been a difficult call to choose this over The Aviator for so many Academy Awards but that only goes to show how amazing both movies were. If I had to pick the three best films of 2004, this would be one of them. It is well worth your time.
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