Actors are capable of sinking into many roles, but icons like Clint Eastwood are another story: His range is limited, but within those limits, his aura suggests a history and gravity that's more powerful than mere performance. In his beautiful boxing drama Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood allows the gentle masculinity of his recent roles to seep into the entire movie, creating a haunted tone that transforms an underdog sports film into something as intimate as a whisper. With its down-and-out characters and dramatic interplay of darkness and light, the film has the texture of a somber palooka noir like Robert Wise's The Set-Up, but it's touched by a dogged optimism that's anathema to the genre. Though conventional in many respects, it feels like no other boxing film ever made, due largely to Eastwood's unmistakable presence on both sides of the camera.
Based on Rope Burns: Stories From The Corner, a short-story anthology by veteran fight manager and cutman Jerry Boyd (writing under the pen name F.X. Toole), Million Dollar Baby is suffused with loss, since even the brightest boxing careers are short-lived and doomed to disappointment at the end of the line. As a longtime trainer and current proprietor of a dilapidated gym, Eastwood knows this heartbreak better than most, because he's reminded of it every day. His gym manager, played by an assured Morgan Freeman, was a great contender, until a brutal title bout left him blind in one eye. Hesitant to train another fighter, Eastwood reluctantly takes on Hilary Swank, a trailer-park-raised waitress who overcomes her age and inexperience with raw talent and determination. Estranged from their respective families, Eastwood and Swank develop a deep surrogate bond that leads them through the gritty, low-stakes female-boxing circuit.
Million Dollar Baby sets the stage for a hard-won triumph-over-adversity tale, but it's too wise about the boxing world to fall for easy victories, or even the redeeming, spirited letdown of the original Rocky. In Eastwood's hands, the standard training montages have a hushed, meditative quality, with a specific emphasis on the scientific half of "the sweet science" that no doubt stems from Boyd's experience. Though the rambling narrative shows signs of squeezing a few short stories into one—the last 30 minutes, in particular, seem like another movie altogether—the film coheres around groups of characters that integrate more tightly as it goes along. The three leads are all superb, even the seemingly miscast Swank, who finally rediscovers the Method intensity that's been missing since Boys Don't Cry. But Million Dollar Baby belongs to Eastwood, the icon and the auteur, whose weathered face tells a story like nothing he's done since Unforgiven, and whose direction resonates with quiet, insistent soul.