By Sean O'Connell
Eastwood may be fresh off his Oscar-nominated Mystic River, though "refreshed" gives a more accurate description. With Baby, the master storyteller strips away the cumbersome tools of his trade to tell a captivating, gritty story of struggle built from basic building blocks of narrative structure.
It's an easy story to dismiss sight unseen. The synopsis sounds like reheated Karate Kid, right down to the uninspired casting of Next Karate Kid star Hilary Swank. She plays Maggie Fitzgerald, a wannabe boxer past the prime training age who begs crusty, old trainer Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) to take her under his crusty, old wing.
The longer Frankie hesitates, the more Maggie persists, until the two are on the fast track to a title shot. Metaphorically speaking, Maggie becomes the Mike Tyson of women's boxing. Rarely do her fights last beyond the first round, and she's never the one lying on her back looking up at the ceiling when the bell rings.
The originality of the situation doesn't grab us. We've seen Eastwood tackle the trainer-trainee relationship before, and subtle themes attached for scope - including a father alienated from his daughter for reasons unknown - feel previously explored. Plus, name the last inventive boxing drama you've seen. It very well may be Karyn Kusama's Girlfight. Now that's ironic.
Anyway, Eastwood's boxing routines are hard-hitting street fights, choreographed dances of broken noses and below-the-belt cheap shots. Yes, it's a metaphor for the bruises these fighters and their trainers carry outside the ring, but it lands the appropriate punches. There's ample material to sink our teeth into outside the ring, as well. The director collaborates with screenwriter Paul Haggis to lay thick, rich soil, so Frankie's relationship with Maggie can take strong root. Hard truths linger around every corner in this cut-to-the-bone drama, and Haggis pens some tough life lessons linked to tough compromises.
Eastwood's anemic filmmaking method complements the material. A few blues notes picked on a guitar establish mood. A glance around Frankie's gym reveals stark walls and spare corners. Tom Stern's cinematography is both beautiful and bare. Thinking back, one almost remembers Baby as being shot in black and white. It's not, but the color scheme feels that muted and unimportant. It's a clever device, intentional or not. Even when Maggie competes against an abnormally chiseled female counterpart (Lucia Rijker) for the title, they seem to be fighting in a long-forgotten community auditorium in the middle of nowhere.
Morgan Freeman, playing a former boxer and Frankie's longtime friend, establishes a grumpy-old-trainer yin-and-yang chemistry with his director. They're no-nonsense men with no time for bullshit. Frankie, in particular, wears the traits of the overprotective father figure on his ragged sleeves, and Haggis' screenplay establishes the role - and Freeman's companion part - as men imparting stubborn life lessons on those they deem young enough to benefit from some impartial words of wisdom.
The picture starts rough, but the unrefined elements start to gel as Baby progresses. Swank's labored Bible Belt drawl initially grates the ears but grows serene and comfortable by the end credits. Her scrappy, dogged performance makes Maggie more than bearable. Her willingness to absorb an unbeautiful role and find attractiveness in it makes her turn memorable, almost remarkable.
Not all of it flies, however. Eastwood fails to develop all of the broad characters populating Frankie's gym. "Danger" Barch (Jay Baruchel), an ignorant Texan training at the facility, has a better shot at bedding Kate Beckinsale then he does of capturing a heavyweight title. His uninspiring quandaries surface whenever we need a break from Maggie's dramatic ascension, but the crumbs of story we're given don't equal a satisfying meal.
When Baby turns - and it happens pretty quickly - the story we've been following religiously leaves us in an instant, like the air in our lungs after we've been smacked in the gut. A plot twist spins us wildly like a punch to the head, setting up a third act that's dependent on emotional groundwork established in the first two. Freeman's hoarse narration ties Eastwood's scenes together, capping the flashback mood of the picture with a relevant jab at the heartstrings.
Along the way, Baby contrasts its violence with scenes of Frankie at church, questioning (okay, badgering) a parish priest about notions we're taught to take on faith. Frankie can't do that, though we get the sense he's tried. Now, he joins his trainee and his friend in doing all they can to protect what they can control. "Boxing's about respect," the narration informs us early on. Mr. Eastwood, you've certainly earned it.
The exhaustive three-disc DVD includes a full disc of interviews and documentaries plus the soundtrack on CD.
Is this like Baby Geniuses?
Run time: 132 mins
In Theaters: Friday 28th January 2005
Box Office USA: $100.4M
Box Office Worldwide: $216.8M
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Production compaines: Warner Bros. Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Fresh: 212 Rotten: 22
IMDB: 8.1 / 10
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Paul Haggis
Starring: Clint Eastwood as Frankie Dunn, Hilary Swank as Maggie Fitzgerald, Morgan Freeman as Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris, Jay Baruchel as Danger Barch, Mike Colter as Big Willie Little, Brían F. O'Byrne as Father Horvak, Anthony Mackie as Shawrelle Berry, Margo Martindale as Earline Fitzgerald, Riki Lindhome as Mardell Fitzgerald, Michael Peña as Omar, Lucia Rijker as Billie 'The Blue Bear'
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