Some desperate glory

The boxing ring becomes Clint Eastwood’s metaphor for screen violence

Tom Horgen

A great bleached-blond poet once asked, “Hi kids, do you like violence? Wanna watch me stick 9-inch nails through each one of my eyelids?”

And his audience answered emphatically, “Yes. Yes, we do.” Because violence, the most feared tool for human suppression, is now something you wrap up with a bow and place under the Christmas tree.

Clint Eastwood has been one of Hollywood’s chief practitioners of fantasy violence for much of his 50-year career, endlessly chewing on soggy cigars while making Swiss cheese out of cowboys and punks who dared to make his day.

But in the last decade, Eastwood the director has tried vehemently to eliminate the aura he helped Hollywood build around screen violence. While he’s not always successful, his best films – “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River” and now “Million Dollar Baby” – speak directly to this great American pastime. He’s trying his damnedest to make violence uncomfortable once again.

He started by destroying the genre that made him a star. In 1992’s “Unforgiven,” he flipped the Western on its head; cowboys didn’t grit their teeth when shot anymore, they cried like babies. In “Mystic River,” he again subverted a familiar paradigm, this time showing the ways vigilante justice, a la Dirty Harry, is no different than the violent act that sparked it.

While ol’ Clint hasn’t made many boxing movies, he’s got something to say with “Million Dollar Baby.”

Looking his age, a 74-year-old Eastwood grumbles through his role as Frankie, a fight trainer who runs a boxing gym with his broken-down buddy, played by Morgan Freeman.

The first half of the film is outfitted like a sports formula 101 class: young female boxer (Hilary Swank), who reminds Frankie of his estranged daughter, begs him to train her. He doesn’t want to at first, but then accepts her, molds her and takes her to the championship match.

Of course, Eastwood doesn’t make the journey very pleasant. Frankie is the best “cut man” alive. Meaning, he’s the guy in the corner who stops the bleeding so a fighter can continue when he, and in this case, she, really shouldn’t. The scene when Frankie breaks his protege’s nose back into place is particularly gruesome. It takes the fun out of it. Which is the point.

But “Million Dollar Baby” isn’t an indictment of boxing. Like “Unforgiven” and “Mystic River,” it’s simply asking us to step back and think about the way we consume violent spectacle. And in boxing’s case, how we view a sport that is often the only outlet for the poor and downtrodden to catch a break.

“Million Dollar Baby” opens with Freeman saying “People love violence.” Halfway through the film, Eastwood throws us a deadly left hook, plucking the film out of its “Rocky” formula. He takes the movie in an entirely new direction – one that demands a lot of emotional commitment from the audience. Like he’s done before, his characters must face the consequences for dealing in violence-as-commodity.

“Million Dollar Baby,” like Eastwood’s best films, is made for the average consumer who wakes up to Eminem sawing off his girlfriend’s head, plays “Grand Theft Auto” after work, and then watches a couple episodes of “The Sopranos” before falling asleep to FoxNews and CNN’s “War on Terror.”