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Determined to prove he's a true
renaissance man, Clint Eastwood
adds "makeup artist" to his resume.

Million Dollar Baby
Review written by: Alex Sandell

Million Dollar Baby packs an emotional punch that knocks the wind out of its audience like no movie has in years.  It's Clint Eastwood's best movie since 1992's Unforgiven and his most heart wrenching effort to date.  And I can't talk about any of it.  This movie takes its audience to places they would never expect to go when buying a ticket.  It jolts them awake and makes them think about things they never thought they'd be thinking about while watching a boxing movie.  It shakes them out of the catatonic state Van Helsing put them in, back in May, and reminds them that movies are more than just a clever spot to place products.  It reminds them that cinema is art.   

It's a rarity, in this day and age, but even the advertising campaign's keeping quiet on the twists and turns found in this film.  If you watch the trailers for Million Dollar Baby, you'll inevitably think it looks like a Rocky rehash starring the next Karate Kid (Hilary Swank played the female "Karate Kid" in 1994's, The Next Karate Kid).  In the trailers Clint looks like he's taking over for Burgess Meredith and Morgan Freeman appears to be in the film as a good luck charm.  The trailers do not do this movie justice.  Million Dollar Baby is one of the most moving, emotional, heartfelt films released this year, or any other.  It isn't Rocky.  It isn't The Karate Kid.  And, contrary to popular opinion, it isn't Girlfight.

Believe it or not, I have been typing this review for over four hours.  All that's left to show for it are the two paragraphs above.  If I describe the plot, without giving too much away, the movie sounds like the Rocky rehash I feared that it would be.  If I begin explaining what sets it apart from films like Rocky, I give away too much.  Million Dollar Baby is as difficult to review as those damn M. Night Shyalaman movies.  I'm worried that even that declaration will give you the wrong idea.  The movie doesn't have a cheap twist ending attached to it.  It isn't built around the "twist."  There isn't even a "twist," as much as there is a change in tone.  Nobody starts seeing ghosts, aliens or generic monster suits.  The movie is in no way supernatural.  As a matter of fact, it's quite the contrary.  Million Dollar Baby is one of the most human films I've ever experienced.

There's that "experienced" word again.  Just four days ago, when reviewing The Aviator, I wrote, "You don't watch the best of films; you experience them."  Million Dollar Baby is an experience.  Although I like both The Aviator and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind better, I think that, in many ways, Million Dollar Baby is the most powerful film of the year.  It's surely the most memorable.  There are three reasons Million Dollar Baby is my third favorite film of 2004, rather than my favorite:  1. some of the supporting characters, Danger and the entire "white trash family" come off as broadly drawn caricatures 2. there's a stretch of time in the second half that seems to go on for about ten minutes too long (thanks, in large part, to the "white trash family")  3. The Aviator is just so damn good.   

I don't think I've seen a movie pack the emotional wallop that Million Dollar Baby did.  The audience laughed together, flinched together and cried together.  People oftentimes say, when talking about a film made to jerk tears, "there wasn't a dry eye in the house."  They said it about Titanic, for example.  While a lot of people were crying, at least five or six were laughing as Leonardo floated away from Kate.  I've never watched a movie where every single person had tears welling up, or where they had completely surrendered to the emotional stranglehold the events on screen had them in and sobbed.  Not until last night, at Million Dollar Baby; a movie that drew tears from its audience as easily as it elicited laughter.       

While I can't talk about story (which is driving me friggin' NUTS), I can talk about quality.  I can tell you that Clint Eastwood rivals his directing in Unforgiven, creating another classic.  I can reveal that the wonderful on-screen chemistry between Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven wasn't a fluke.  The two are a joy to watch together and I hope to see them pair up again.  I can say, without reservation, that the acting in this movie is some of the best you'll see all year.  Hilary Swank is incredible as the untutored 31-year-old woman looking to become a fighter (although hearing her talking with a faux southern accent brought back memories of her haunting performance in Boys Don't Cry).  Morgan Freeman adds humor and heart as a washed-up boxer relegated to washing up Eastwood's gym (The Hit Pit).  Lastly, Eastwood himself gives the best performance of his 50 year career.  The three make up an "iron triangle" of acting.  My heart goes out to each of their characters.  I can't believe I'm sitting here getting misty-eyed over these fictional people that I met just last night. 

The emotional devastation in Mystic River now seems like nothing more than a warm-up for Million Dollar BabyMystic River had powerhouse performances, but they somehow never leapt off of the screen.  They won Oscars, but they didn't win your heart.  I'm not taking anything away from the guy -- because he is one of the best actors out there (really) -- but there's only so much of Sean Penn crying that a person can take in two hours, before growing numb.  There is none of that here.  You become invested in the characters, not because they demand that you do so, screaming and stomping their feet and threatening to stop the projector and go home if you don't cry along with them, but rather because they have a story powerful enough to be told without the excesses or contrivances of Mystic River.  Sure it's a smaller story, but on a personal level, Million Dollar Baby is a far grander tale.

I can't believe Million Dollar Baby came right on the heels of The Aviator.  After being sorely disappointed by Sideways (critique coming January 2nd -- the first of 2004), I felt my love affair with film was coming to an end.  I hadn't thoroughly enjoyed a film since Shaun of the Dead, months earlier.  I hadn't really loved a movie since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, almost a year prior.  Now two films, right in a row, come out and blow me away.  They make me believe in cinema again.  For five hours, they had me looking up at that big silver screen with the innocent, curious eyes of a child.  For that, I'd like to end my last review of 2004 with two simple words to Hollywood:  thank you.   

Agree? Disagree? Have questions?  Comments?  Email this critic at alex@juicycerebellum.com

RECENT REVIEWS (click here to see ALL films reviewed in the last three months):

The Aviator
Sideways
The Phantom of the Opera
Meet the Fockers
Spanglish
Lemony Snicket's a Series of Unfortunate Events
Closer
Blade: Trinity
Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason
Finding Neverland
The Incredibles
After the Sunset
Saw
The Grudge

On a scale of 1-10?

9

What does this rating mean?  Everyone rates things differently.  Your "5" could be my "7," or vice-versa.  Find out what MY rating means by clicking here

COMING SOON - Reviews of Sideways, The Phantom of the Opera and, just because it's been requested more than ANY other movie yet to be reviewed on this site, Hellboy (so who says I don't listen to my readers?)!

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