The Boxer's Heart:
How I Fell in Love with the Ring
by Kate Sekules
"Million Dollar Baby"
The artistic Clint Eastwood eye has turned to the world of boxing, and to "Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner," a collection of short stories based on the experiences of long-time fight manager and cutman Jerry Boyd. Writing under the pen name F.X. Toole, his work was adapted into an Eastwood screenplay by Paul Haggis. Sensibly realizing that he's no longer castable as a romantic lead, (even in his own movies), Eastwood comes up here with a personal drama in which he adopts the role of a hard-edged, crusty and irascible father-figure -- not a bad fit.
When we meet Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), he's the owner of a boxing gym and the manager of an up and coming fighter who he thinks needs only a couple more fights before challenging the champion. The trouble with Dunn, however, is that he always thinks his fighter needs a couple more fights before a shot at the title, which doesn't work for an ambitious young man. On the personal side, Dunn is a loner whose attempts to apologize to his daughter for something he did in the past has been rejected for years. His weekly letters to her are routinely returned.
Rounding out this portrait of the low-level side of boxing is Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris (Morgan Freeman), an ex-fighter who cleans and helps run the gym. He's also Dunn's unappointed sidekick, advisor and conscience, faithfully trying to prevent his boss from becoming his own worst enemy. He is also the narrator of the story.
Into it steps the million dollar baby. Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) first approaches the legendary trainer, Dunn, after a bout that his fighter won. She declares her need for his training, assuring him of her toughness. "Girlie tough is not enough," he throws out like a neon bumper sticker as he scorns her appeal.
But, the girl shows up at the gym, pounding the heavy bag for hours, her very presence annoying Dunn. When he finds out from Eddie that she's paid up for six months of gym time, he reluctantly tolerates a girl wannabe on the premises.
But a change of attitude is in the wind, and it starts when his boxer, itching to try for the belt, leaves Dunn for another manager more willing to set him up for a title bout. The disappointment and sudden emptiness doesn't send Dunn running to take on a new fighter -- least of all, Maggie Fitzgerald. But he does come to respect her persistence and devotion to the sport. Slowly, patiently, his increasing regard turns into a drama of acceptance, support and love. For her part, she thrives under the concern of someone who believes in her.
He manages her into a string of fights that she wins in the early seconds of the first round, gradually leading to higher classes and bigger purses until she claims the championship. And just as her ultimate dream becomes a reality, tragedy strikes with a lethal blow, taking us down for the count in acute hopelessness. Be forewarned, the movie is an up and downer.
Hilary Swank, it can be argued, is one of the most elegantly beautiful actresses around. She's also an artist to whom beauty is grossly secondary and something to be camouflaged for the sake of creativity. Her career, after all, pretty much starts with her portrayal of a girl playing a boy in her breakout, "Boys Don't Cry" in 1999.
When she now takes on a female boxer with big potential, her fitness and conditioning for the role has everything to do with determination and absorbing herself into the character and the demands of rigorous physical training. It's my suspicion that she loves a role that makes her look plain, beat up and as unglamorous as possible. Not that playing against natural gifts hurts. Under all the disguise of baggy gym pants and lots of sweat, there remains the world-class proportions and classic facial features to claim a title anywhere.
Eastwood is no dummy about his casting and his own strengths as far as film roles go. Here, he remains iron-willed resolute with an evil eye that can fracture ice, playing the hard man to win over. Which makes doing so all the more effective when a parental love is the inevitable issue. He and the winner of that affection form a bond that fulfills their vital and mutual needs. Freeman, of course, can't get in a false lick, using that modulated voice of his as an instrument of clarity, truth and sympathy. The man's a treasure.
Visually, the film's nothing to cheer about. Director/Co-Producer Eastwood is famous within the industry for his short schedules and quick shooting pace and it affects the lighting in constantly annoying visual obscurity, the underlighting forced by the financially-dictated number of daily setups. Forget giving the cinematographer time for some fill light, even when a character becomes little more than a talking shadow. Ugh. But this is a personal carp and I don't mean to suggest that it affects the movie in a profound way. Trusted cinematographer Tom Stern does find opportunities for effective silhouettes and mood light when circumstances allow. Ring lighting is appropriately gritty and unglamorizing.
I found some fault with the boxing aspects of the film, particularly in the
Despite the simplicity of it, I have to quickly add for fight fans that, aided by the excellent sound effects, Swank makes it convincing. Her body language is all it needs to be. Her swings and punches have the power of full body involvement and her speed is impressive - obviously the result of sound training in ring style and conditioning. It's more than evident that she put her heart and soul into this demanding piece of work, a component of why she won the Oscar for the performance.
The last act is so much of a change of direction and pace, it feels like a roundhouse from the referee. Or, like two stories tacked together to achieve a greater depth of poignancy. Somehow, it doesn't fit, but I'm willing to pat Eastwood on the back for not giving a damn about what a sad ending might mean in terms of ultimate boxoffice receipts. His energetic vehicle for spirit and sweetness in the dedication to a career dream is virtuously addressed. Perhaps the best thing you can say about it is that the auteur seems to have the same regard for boxing as he does for jazz.
[Warning: the following is for those who have seen the movie. If you haven't
seen it, read no further as this final point would be a spoiler: I seem
to be one of a handful of people who are bothered by the lack of punishment
for what Billie "The Blue Bear" (Lucia Rijker, "Rollerball," "Thunderbox")
does to Maggie. At the very least, it should have barred her from any
further ring competition and closed down her career. Instead, there is no
further mention of her criminal act, leaving an important issue of justice
unresolved -- a detriment to the film. As the entire last half of the film
is about the consequences of her brutality, it's of great concern, as is the
disappointment that I've found no reference to it by any other critic or
writer. But it seems to me too ugly to ignore and a mystery why Eastwood
failed to deal with it.
The Soundtrack Album