DVD REVIEWS: Million Dollar Baby

Movie •••• Picture/Sound •••• Extras •••
The late-career masterworks of director Clint Eastwood - Unforgiven, Mystic River, and now Million Dollar Baby - all share the same basic qualities: simplicity, emotional directness, and economy of scale. Most important, though, is their singular lack of sentimentality. This is a crucial element for movies that tend to dwell on guilt and regret and that often feature characters with no real chance of redemption. Million Dollar Baby may be the ultimate expression of this eloquent yet unspoken aesthetic. It's the boxing movie for those who don't care for the sport but who appreciate the sort of natural, intimate, character-driven tale that Hollywood seldom delivers - in this or any other era.

Eastwood is far too smart to attempt a movie like this without plenty of help. He surrounds himself with the best actors available and gives them the room they need to shine. The result is the rare film that genuinely earns its two major acting Oscars. Hilary Swank (Best Actress) is letter-perfect as Maggie, the dirt-poor thirty-something boxer who claws her way to a title shot, and Morgan Freeman (Best Supporting Actor) was born to play the aging, world-weary boxer whose narration gives the film much of its depth. Eastwood is just as convincing as Maggie's cantankerous trainer, though he had to settle for another set of Best Directing and Best Picture Oscars.

Million Dollar Baby is no visual feast. It takes place in dark, dingy gyms, arenas, and tenements, but the DVD picture contains every bit of grime and drop of blood. Dark scenes are perfect, sustaining the somber mood without obliterating the film's remarkable sharpness and detail. The characters live on "the periphery of society," as Eastwood likes to say, and their harsh world comes across in the stark realism of the film's every frame. The restrained soundtrack skillfully blends dialogue with Eastwood's own melancholy score, exploding into surround sound glory in fight scenes that approach Raging Bull-style ferocity.

The extras on the two DVDs are a little thin, though this is mainly because the ever-laconic Eastwood declines to sit for a commentary. Instead we get two mini-documentaries (totaling 30 minutes) that rely on typical cast-and-crew interviews. But insights on the director's creative technique - best summed up as follow your gut, trust your colleagues, and don't think too much - make the material worthwhile. There's also a roundtable discussion with Eastwood, Swank, and Freeman (recorded the day after the Academy Awards ceremony), but moderator James Lipton spoils the vibe with his relentlessly fawning manner. A bonus CD offers the beautiful score in stereo. This set is a perfect introduction to the many talents of Hollywood's most unlikely Renaissance man. [PG-13] English and French, Dolby Digital 5.1; letterboxed (2.35:1) and anamorphic widescreen; one dual-layer disc, one single-layer disc, and one CD.