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Million Dollar Baby (12A)



Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: Two

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Born To Fight - a look at women in the ring. Producers Round 15 - interview with producers Al Ruddy, Tom Rosenberg and Paul Haggis. James Lipton Takes On Three - interview with Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank the day after the Oscars.

ON THE surface, Million Dollar Baby seems like just another boxing story of an unlikely fighter coming good - albeit in this case, a female fighter.

But appearances can be deceptive and Clint Eastwood's latest, which marks his follow-up to Mystic River, is one of the most unforgettable films of the year; a powerful reflection on human frailty and personal redemption.

For Eastwood, it also marks a tour-de-force, given that he acts, directs, produces and composes the score; thereby confirming his position as one of cinema's true living legends.

It is ironic, therefore, that the film itself will probably have to fight as hard as its central protagonist to get the box office it undoubtedly deserves - for as critically-acclaimed and awards-tipped as it is, there's no escaping the fact that this is a hard sell.

Eastwood stars as luckless gym owner and boxing trainer, Frankie Dunn, who reluctantly agrees to tutor Hilary Swank's feisty female boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald, with a view to getting her a shot at the title.

Initially sceptical of taking on a woman, Dunn is persuaded to drop his own personal guard by his only friend and gym manager, Eddie 'Scrap Iron' Dupris (Morgan Freeman), and gradually forms a relationship with Maggie that quickly re-awakens a paternal instinct inside of him.

For Maggie, Dunn's faith in her propels her to newfound heights, allowing her to rise above the low expectations of her trailer-trash family, and thereby providing her with a long-lost father-figure.

While for Dunn, the subsequent relationship offers the opportunity to atone for past sins, given that he is painfully estranged from his own daughter and still blames himself for failing to stop Dupris' final fight, which cost him an eye as a result.

Yet just as it seems luck has turned in everyone's favour, fate strikes its own cruel blow and both Dunn and Maggie are forced to fight a bigger battle than even they could have imagined.

From its breezy opening section, viewers could be lulled into a false sense of security by what Million Dollar Baby has to offer, but be warned: it carries a heavy emotional punch.

Eastwood, the filmmaker, seems to have found a niche for himself in exploring darker territory and the film's final section is as gut-wrenching as any of the wounds Maggie picks up in the ring.

It is a tribute to all concerned, however, that Million Dollar Baby never drifts into mawkish sentimentality, frequently challenging the viewer to question their own values, while deeply sympathising with the plight of the characters.

Eastwood has rarely been better as he journeys towards his own form of redemption, while his chemistry with both Swank and Freeman is first-rate (the early banter between the two old-hands, who last appeared together in Unforgiven, is evidence of two masters at work).

Yet Swank, too, is as strong here as she was in her Oscar-winner, Boys Don't Cry, cutting a suitably believable fighting figure, while also managing to convey the emotional intensity of her own exciting journey.

The performances serve to make the outcome of Paul Haggis' story all the more heart-breaking and viewers should definitely enter the cinema armed with a packet of hankies.

Yet everything about Million Dollar Baby smacks of quality, fuelling the belief that everyone concerned should feature prominently come Oscar time.

It is to filmmaking what Ali was to boxing - a true great in every sense of the word.

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