[box cover]

Million Dollar Baby

Back during the heyday of his box-office clout, few suspected that Clint Eastwood would become one of the American film industry's most subtle and celebrated directors . Transitioning from a TV career to spaghetti westerns to the Dirty Harry series, he also managed to star opposite an orangutang on screen — twice. But after establishing himself as a serious director with Bird (1988), he left the vacuous matinees behind and directed a string of serious pictures during the 1990s. Most had merit, and one or two were unqualified masterpieces. And with Million Dollar Baby (2004), Eastwood proved that his two nominations (and one win) for Best Director Oscars were no fluke. Based on a series of stories by F.X. Toole, Million Dollar Baby tells the story of only three people. Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) owns a run-down boxing gym in downtown Los Angeles called the "Hit Pit," where ambitious fighters with few resources turn up on a daily basis. Managing the gym with Dunn is his oldest friend, Eddie 'Scrap-Iron' Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a half-blind veteran of 109 fights who first met Dunn when he was a cut-man working a boxing circuit in the South. A Missourian relocated in L.A., Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) has taken up boxing late in life. At just 31, she's well past the age where she can effectively train for several years and work her way up into the sport's highest ranks. It's a fact Dunn is only too happy to point out to her (along with his opinion that women's boxing is "the latest freak-show"). But she's a regular at the Hit Pit, and her determination eventually wins over Dupris, and then Dunn, who agrees to train her. Maggie's mercurial knockout skills surprise everyone, and eventually she earns her place on a title-fight card against Billie 'The Blue Bear' (Lucia Rijker), the most dangerous woman fighter alive. Very little should be said about Million Dollar Baby's somber third act, which likely is the foremost final that elevated the picture into an Oscar contender. However, it also could be argued that it's also the script's weakest element. In part, this is due to the story's very radical, if very purposeful, shift away from everything that has come before, save for the characters and their now-intertwined lives. There are scenes here that are full of power, and humor, and very fine, actorly moments, but there also is something unsatisfying, simply because vibrant people are now acted upon more than they are acting. Where the film it is at its very finest is when it explains the minutiae of boxing as a contest. The very idea of the boxer blessed with spunk is dismissed out of hand. "Tough isn't enough," Dunn says. The idea of "heart" is equally mocked. Toole's writing is willing to trust the audience by celebrating the sport of boxing, and it does so by explaining it. It's not a street-fight, and it does not reward a fighter's natural instincts. Freeman's narration relishes paradoxes, and such expository moments are rewarding. Warner's two-disc DVD release of Million Dollar Baby offers a flawless anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) on Disc One with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio and the theatrical trailer. Disc Two contains the bulk of the supplements, including the behind-the-scenes featurette "Born to Fight" (19 min.), "The Producers' Round 15" (14 min.), and "James Lipton Takes on Three" (24 min.). Warner's "Deluxe Edition" of Million Dollar Baby also includes a Compact Disc featuring Eastwood's film score. Multi-DVD digipak with paperboard slipcase.

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