<preform>Million Dollar Baby (12A)</br>2046 (12A)</preform>

Clint the heavyweight knocks 'em dead
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The Independent Culture

Oscar season approaches, with its attendant highs, lows and ho-hums. The release schedule at this time of year always brings us several anomalies - crafted, intelligent, sometimes laboriously well-meaning films, the cinematic equivalent of Oprah's Book Club choices. But it's encouraging, after all, to see decent, thoughtful work slip through the net of an industry usually geared to filtering it out. And so what if such films get distributed, marketed or even financed in the first place only because the business knows it stands to win a little prestige, to be seen as a serious adult concern? Every year, after all the fuss has died down, Hollywood can go back to what it feels comfortable with: making Scooby-Doo spin-offs.

Oscar season approaches, with its attendant highs, lows and ho-hums. The release schedule at this time of year always brings us several anomalies - crafted, intelligent, sometimes laboriously well-meaning films, the cinematic equivalent of Oprah's Book Club choices. But it's encouraging, after all, to see decent, thoughtful work slip through the net of an industry usually geared to filtering it out. And so what if such films get distributed, marketed or even financed in the first place only because the business knows it stands to win a little prestige, to be seen as a serious adult concern? Every year, after all the fuss has died down, Hollywood can go back to what it feels comfortable with: making Scooby-Doo spin-offs.

Still, the fact that Clint Eastwood's new film will be much seen and much discussed for the next couple of months is itself a vindication of the awards season and its reputation as a brief carnival of exceptions.

Million Dollar Baby is an exception, all right: the rest of the year's rush for opening grosses would surely allow little space for a film this sombre, this laconic and disillusioned - dare I say, this adult.

Those of us who have been dutifully logging Eastwood's films since 1992's magisterial Unforgiven have had to wade through a lot of solemn middlebrow sludge and disposable over-pumped thrillers. Who ever thought we'd see a really weighty Eastwood film again - or for that matter, a great boxing movie?

Million Dollar Baby's central locale - which memorably exudes dusty, sweat-stenched dinginess - is the Hit Pit, a run-down boxing gym where Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) trains a mixed-ability pack of would-be contenders. He has one champ in the making, but won't give him a crack at the big fight: Frankie's flaw is that he's too protective to properly nurture talent. Significantly, Frankie's special skill is as a "cut man", patching up wounds during a match, pumping in coagulant so that a fighter can carry on, sometimes beyond the natural bounds of endurance or sanity. In other words, he's a master of the art of holding on in the face of calamity.

Then along comes grinning, wide-eyed Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), fresh from the dirt-poor South with a boxing career as her only dream.

She's no tender hopeful - already 31, she's starting too late to get anywhere, Frankie insists, and besides, he doesn't train women. But his sidekick, ex-bruiser Scrap (Morgan Freeman), discreetly whittles away at Frankie's gruff resistance - and besides, Frankie is yearning for his own adult daughter, whom he hasn't seen for years.

Now, you're reading this and suspecting the worst kind of triumph-against-adversity heartwarmer.

Think again. Million Dollar Baby is as close to an anti-Rocky as a sports picture ever came, but even when following familiar paths, it stakes out its own distinctively harsh territory. The world Frankie and Scrap inhabit is not that humble ante-chamber to glory that lowly gyms usually are in boxing pictures.

We see the two grizzled, weary vets at the end of their hopes, trading joylessly fond insults; we read the signs on the gym walls ("Tough ain't enough", "Winners are simply willing to do what losers aren't"), and we wonder what success could possibly mean in a world so tarnished, whether the rewards of inhuman exertion could possibly be enough. Scrap spells out the bottom line of the sport early on, and it's rarely been expressed so uncompromisingly, even in Raging Bull: "Boxing is about respect - getting it yourself and taking it away from the other guy." Has a sports film ever been so disenchanted with the American dreams of redemption and glory, or with the idea of the struggle as its own reward?

Maggie does indeed become the Million Dollar Baby of the title - and the film is astute on the infantile nature of the game, on the way fighters dream of glittering trophies, oblivious to what the price might be. You've no doubt heard that the film contains a twist, but it's more accurate to say that at a certain point Million Dollar Baby heads in a direction you don't expect, that takes it into an area of very bleak contemplation. If there's a twist as such - though it's so subtle as to be more of a grace note - it comes at the very end, when we understand the full import of Scrap's voice-over narrative. Paul Haggis's superb script - with its rich but unflamboyant hard-boiled phrasing - is based on stories by one F X Toole, himself a long-time cut man, and the writing does justice to the bite of lived experience.

Eastwood plays his age, to the extent of wearing his wasteband high on his belly, and although his curmudgeonliness is still occasionally a disguised flirtation with the audience, his performance here is as compellingly downbeat and deglamourising as Jack Nicholson's in the under-rated The Pledge. Freeman is terrific too, in what proves to be much richer and sadder than the buddy role it at first appears. But the Oscar contender here is surely Hilary Swank, who has been largely wasted since her androgynous debut in Boys Don't Cry. Her Maggie - wolfing down left-over steaks on the sly - is defined by hunger, physical and spiritual, but also by a monomania way beyond greenhorn ambition. Swank has also transformed her body, trained so that her moves are as eloquent as her words or expressions: we can see the precise moment when Maggie becomes a fighter, when she hits an opponent just so, and that too is great acting. I'll say no more, except to endorse David Thomson's comment last week: this lean, resonant study is Eastwood showing how it should be done.

When Wong-Kar Wai's 2046 was unveiled in Cannes last year, as a work in progress, some critics swooned, many scratched their heads, and most ground their teeth at the fact that Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song" featured not less than five times. Now completed, recut and four minutes longer, 2046 begins to make some sort of sense - not that it's any more linear - and Nat, mercifully, is down to two plays.

The film now also undoubtedly looks like some kind of achievement. It's a sort of follow-up to Wong's acclaimed In the Mood For Love, in which two people enjoyed a passionate but possibly chaste liaison while squeezing elegantly along the narrow corridors of a Hong Kong apartment in the early Sixties. Now, Tony Leung's character Chow Mo-Wan - reborn as a louche literary playboy, complete with Clark Gable moustache - has moved into a hotel to ponder lost love, get entangled with various other femmes more or less fatales, and write a science-fiction story set in the year 2046, which is also the number of the room next to his.

2046 is less a sequel as such, more a deconstructed remix of In the Mood... Much of it is familiar - the sleek Sixties clothes, the lounge-Latin tunes, now incorporated into an even swoonier soundtrack, and the corridors, narrower and more opulently lit than before. What's new is the disorienting play with time and the incorporation of dream-like sci-fi scenes, set on a future train and representing a fantasy rewrite of Chow's romantic life. This strand's luscious but chilly design suggests an ultra-bizarre Vogue shoot, with the women in Chow's life recast as high-glam androids in illuminated boots and earrings, or languishing under plexiglass chandeliers.

The film is both gorgeous and baffling, with an elastic time scheme of repetitions and unexpected loops back. It's not by any means terribly substantial - its knowing, hedonistic melancholy recalls those blasé cover versions that Bryan Ferry used to record in the mid-Seventies - and 2046 feels more than anything like a de luxe womaniser's dream, with south-east Asia's most glamorous actresses sashaying photogenically in both roles and non-roles (In the Mood's Maggie Cheung appears for barely more than a frame). Admirers of Wong Kar-Wai's considerably zippier Chungking Express will welcome the return of its ebullient gamine Faye Wong, but the cast's main attraction is the drop-dead sultry presence of Zhang Ziyi, as Chow's most bewitching liaison, a kittenish but hard-bitten demi-mondaine. We're used to seeing Zhang high-kicking it in action epics like House of Flying Daggers, but let her stand still for five minutes, and she's truly something: knowing, arch, irresistible, China's own Bardot or Brooks. I can't remember when a film more had the hots for its female lead. But it's sad to see that Gong Li, the great diva of Nineties Chinese cinema, playing a black-gloved woman of mystery, is filmed with horribly uncomplimentary harshness - is that any way to treat an international face of L'Oréal?

I don't think 2046 bears out the claims made for Wong Kar-Wai as Asia's own Godard: this film is more like a catwalk version of Alain Resnais. But without a doubt, it's seductively perplexing and devilishly good-looking - and if you like it, you'll probably find that one viewing isn't enough.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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