Without so much as a decent shower break following Mystic River's victory lap, Clint Eastwood rejoins the awards fray touting another heavyweight contender. Were it simply a thumping two in a swift one-two, Million Dollar Baby would be impressive enough, but as a rueful rumination on sin and absolution, Eastwood's new Baby boldly measures up against the director's undisputed champion: Unforgiven.
Put together on the fly, with little pedigree to speak of, Million Dollar Baby is the movie equivalent of a no-hoper handed a title bout. The source material is a short story from a debut collection by 69 year-old fight insider F. X. Toole. The adaptation is the first produced screenplay by Paul Haggis, a decorated TV writer best known for creating offbeat Mountie comedy Due South. And Eastwood himself stepped in at short notice, moving his Mystic River crew onto the project with virtually no prep time.
In what is essentially an odd-couple drama charting the well-worn contours of seasoned trainer and spunky protege, Morgan Freeman's salty sidekick is elevated to a third leading part principally to provide a semblance of narrative control. His intermittent voiceover, meanwhile, dispenses homilies that might make Shawshank's Red blush. However, Eastwood employs the space cleared by Dupris to explore character in ways that standard Hollywood-movie time simply would not countenance. And Million Dollar Baby's dancing is not entirely in vain. All the bobbing and weaving is clearly intended to put the audience off-balance, blinding seasoned pros to the sucker punch that Eastwood has been cocking all along. Even if you do see it coming - and it's best not to look - Baby's final blow should still floor you, a shot to the gut that will wring tears from the toughest guy in the gym.
With the easy confidence only a true vet can possess, Eastwood tells his story at his own unhurried pace, in his own unadorned style. Ably supported by his usual backroom staff, notably DoP Tom Stern, Eastwood's striking framing has the muscular simplicity and directness of Ernest Hemingway's prose; the twist in this tale is that the embodiment of American manliness is a girl from hillbilly country.