MILLION DOLLAR BABY: Blu-Ray (WB 2004) Warner Home Video
A passion project for actor/director, Clint Eastwood, who exercises his film-making chops both in front of, and, behind the camera, Million Dollar Baby (2004) is an empathetic masterpiece – far and away the most engrossing and meaningful Best Picture winner produced within the last ten years. For in its stark and stylized backdrop, its relentless and sobering screenplay by Paul Haggis, to illustrate the hard knocks and lost opportunities inside the un-glamorous world of professional boxing, the heart of a champion collided with the wide-eyed optimism of a dreamer destined to have her heart broken, Million Dollar Baby is a reminder of how far Eastwood’s career had progressed – not only from his early days as an actor in all those excellent spaghetti westerns and cop actioners, but as one of the greatest film-makers of his generation, capable of so much more. Million Dollar Baby casts Eastwood as Frankie Dunn – a has-been fight manager and gym owner, estranged from his daughter, whom he writes to every week, and whose latest ticket to the big time, Willie Little (Mike Colter) has just given him the ol’ heave ho. Frankie’s gym is, in fact, a refuge for the last chance pugilist – the down and out who still cling to hope when all else – though especially, raw talent - has failed them. Hence, newbie to the establishment, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) is in good company. She aspires to professional greatness without knowing the first thing about how to make her dreams a reality. Maggie's ambition is to get Frank to coach her in the art of prize fighting.
At first, Frank balks at the suggestion. But there is something different about Maggie. Maybe she’s just too ignorant to know any better. Nothing ever gets her down - not Frank’s constant rejections (“I don’t train girls” he tells her), nor even her ‘back of the rails’ white trash family, who think nothing of spitting on Maggie’s dreams even as they take the hard earned charity she doles out with equal portions of humility and unquestioning kindness. Initially, it doesn’t look as though Frank’s curmudgeonly exterior will melt to Maggie’s backward charm. However, even with his glass eye, Frank’s gym manager, Eddie Scrap-iron Dupris (Morgan Freeman) can spot a winner. Soon, the pair is coaching Maggie for the big time. Her rise is swift and assured – driving home one KO after the next, until Frank suddenly realizes – maybe – he just might have his ‘million dollar baby’ all sewn up in Maggie’s hard left hook. Regrettably, both Maggie and Frank are set-up to have their hearts and hopes destroyed. After a freak accident in the ring paralyzes Maggie from the neck down, Frank turns inward and reclusive. He visits Maggie at the rehabilitation facility on several occasions and attempts, in vain, to contact her family.
When the family finally does arrive, it is with an attorney and a request for Maggie to sign over all her money and assets to them. Instead, Maggie delivers an ultimatum - leave and never contact her again or she will sell the home she bought and paid for and turn her sponging mother and siblings out into the street. The embittered clan depart and never visit Maggie again. From here, the once resilient boxer begins to lose her will to live - asking Frank on his subsequent visit if he will help her commit suicide. At first, Frank refuses, consulting Maggie's priest instead, who also denounces the idea as murder. But Frank, realizing a life without the ring is no life at all for Maggie, has had a change of heart. He returns to the rehabilitation center after visiting hours, tenderly saying his goodbyes before injecting Maggie with a lethal dose of adrenaline. Afterward, Frank disappears and is never heard from again, leaving Eddie to relay to Frank's estranged daughter the true testament of his character.
About as far removed from the ‘feel good’ flourish that permeated the other Oscar-winning boxing flick - Rocky (1976), Million Dollar Baby packs a powerful wallop on more than one level. There is palpable chemistry between Eastwood, Freeman and Swank as three kindred spirits out to defy the world with a smile and right cross. Swank, an actress whom I greatly esteem and, of late, has regrettably not been seen in movies (our loss, I am sure) proves once and for all she is one of the greatest living actresses of this or any generation, delivering a seemingly unrehearsed, honest and introspective performance – as genuine and from the heart as anything glimpsed from a decade’s worth of Best Actresses gone before her. It goes without saying, but worth mentioning, Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood are pros from that rarefied ilk of actors to whom all others ought to be looking for their own inspiration. Freeman has always been a formidable talent, quietly reserved and expertly to internalize the characters he plays. Eastwood, yet again, delivers a subtly nuanced portrait of a sober citizen, made tough on the outside, but with a true heart made insular, though never hard, but its resilient outer coating. The screenplay by Paul Haggis (based on F.X. Toole’s stories), is unsympathetic and genuine. No false emotions here! Writing this good deserved so much more than just an Oscar nomination. In the final analysis, Million Dollar Baby is what so few Oscar winners of the most recent generation are not – absolutely deserving of all the accolades and critical praise with much more to come as future generations continue to discover its soulful impact. This is one hell of a good show!
Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray boasts a stylized color palette, perfectly to recreate the de-saturated hues with fine detail abounding throughout - even during the darkest scenes. Pixelization and edge enhancement that plagued the DVD have been eradicated herein for an image that is both smooth, yet preserving the elemental grain, and, satisfying while at the same time razor sharp. The lossless HD 5.1 audio is far more aggressive than expected. However, early on Morgan Freeman’s narration seems slightly inaudible or, at the very least, mumbled – even when played at higher decibel levels. Extras boil down to three featurettes covering the production from every conceivable angle - all direct imports from the standard DVD release. The real flub is no audio commentary to accompany this feature – a real shame. Otherwise, very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)