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Review: 'Million Dollar Baby' a rich experience

Swank gives great performance in terrific new Eastwood film

By Paul Clinton
For CNN.com

Million Dollar Baby
Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank in "Million Dollar Baby."
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Review
Morgan Freeman
Hilary Swank
Clint Eastwood

(CNN) -- "Million Dollar Baby" has one of the worst titles I've heard in awhile. It's a film set in the boxing world, but the title makes it sound like a Busby Berkeley musical.

But it's also, quite simply, one of the best films of the year -- or the last few years, for that matter.

The film works on every level -- acting, direction and production -- as it tells its heartfelt story about human frailty and the power of redemption.

So don't let the title get in the way. Indeed, "Million Dollar Baby" is destined to cause a feeding frenzy among Academy Awards voters. I expect it will be nominated in every top category except best supporting actress, and only because the film doesn't have a role fitting that slot.

(It's already earned several honors, including five Golden Globe nominations and placement on several critics' top 10 lists.)

Clint Eastwood, as gym owner and boxing manager Frankie Dunn, and Morgan Freeman, as former fighter and gym manager Eddie "Scrap Iron" Dupris, deliver their best performances in very long time. Eastwood, in particular, hasn't grabbed the screen so totally since "Unforgiven." And Hilary Swank's knockout (sorry) portrayal of boxer Maggie Fitzgerald is tailor-made for Oscar.

Believers

The movie begins with Fitzgerald walking into the Hit Pit, a seedy gym in downtown L.A. that matches Dunn's leathery, world-weary face. Her goal is not only to become a champion in the world of female boxing, but also to get Dunn to become her mentor, coach and manager.

Dunn has other ideas. First, female boxing is beneath him. Second, at the age of 31, he thinks Fitzgerald is too old to begin a career in the ring. Then, too, Dunn is fighting his own personal demons as he faces the end of his career. He doesn't need the added baggage.

Million Dollar Baby
Everybody -- Eastwood, Swank and Morgan Freeman -- gives terrific performances, says critic Paul Clinton.

The only person who remotely believes in Fitzgerald's dream is Dupris -- known throughout the film as Scrap. This onetime fighter sidelined by injury gently encourages her while steadily throwing her in Dunn's path in hopes of getting his friend's attention.

On the surface, this rookie-seeking-a mentor-setup sounds like numerous other plotlines in numerous other films over the years -- boxing films in particular. But what sets this story apart is the remarkable journey these three deeply flawed characters eventually take over the course of the film. The finely crafted script by Paul Haggis -- based on short stories from the collection "Rope Burns" by F.X. Toole -- is multi-layered and sharply observant.

You have to only look back one year to Eastwood's last stunning achievement, "Mystic River," to confirm that the filmmaker loves stories dealing with second chances and human redemption. With "Million Dollar Baby," this Hollywood veteran has once again found material allowing him to rip away the fašade of his characters and expose the raw emotions beneath the surface.

Priceless work

Swank confirms that her amazing work in "Boys Don't Cry" was no fluke. She's a gritty actress, and she shows real depth -- and an uncanny ability to get into the heart of her character. She inhabits the role with grace, style and intelligence.

Eastwood and Freeman are a joy to watch together. Nothing gets past them; they can convey volumes with just a movement or glance. Seeing them on screen is like attending a master class in the art of acting.

And Eastwood remains one of the finest directors working today. He pulls the best from his actors; the economy of his directing style is unparalleled. There isn't one wasted frame of film, and his simple use of fades to black between scenes allows the story to flow seamlessly.

Creating his own soundtracks has become a signature for Eastwood's films and "Million Dollar Baby" is no exception. Like his direction, the music supports the story at every turn. The score -- simple and unadorned -- mirrors both the script and the direction.

"Million Dollar Baby" is a profound testament to the idea that sometimes the families we make along the way in life are the real ties that bind. The best love is earned.

And so is the respect accorded to the best movies. "Million Dollar Baby" earns that, too.


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