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Cash Course

A fistful: Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank get plucky in Million Dollar Baby.

lint Eastwood began digging into the third act of his career -- the one that reveals the mature, deep-thinking artistŠwith a little jazz piano on the side -- a dozen years ago, with the discomfiting anti-Western Unforgiven. Since then, he's hardly come up for air or given himself a break. Last year's Mystic River was certainly his most serious, multi-layered film to date, a harrowing meditation on the tug of loyalty and the consequences of violence that showed us, in no uncertain terms, what he has become (or what he wants us to see): a reflective superstar who's evolved into an uneasy moralist with a true gift for drama and second thoughts about his own past. You know, Dirty Harry in active retirement, cringing here and there about all that gunfire and revenge.

This not altogether flattering urge for self-examination and spiritual inquiry continues with Million Dollar Baby, for which Eastwood once more serves as producer, director and lead actor -- the whole Wellesian ball of wax. On the surface, it's a boxing movie with a conventional plot and stock characters, shot in grim, desaturated color tones: A broken-down L.A. fight trainer with gnawing secrets reluctantly takes on a raw but courageous champ-in-the-making, and while rising fast in the game, they both get a shot at redemption. John Garfield could tell you the same story, and so could Sylvester Stallone (four or five times). Of such stuff boxing movies are made. Just make sure to keep the arena clouded in cigar smoke and spatter the combatants with blood every three rounds.

But Eastwood lost patience with surface and convention a long time ago, and he's nothing if not a reacher. So from the moment its oblique, ironic title appears on the screen until we're blindsided by what follows almost two hours later, we see that Million Dollar Baby is not a fight movie at all, but another meditation on conscience. Eastwood's carefully constructed character, a gravel-voiced, gimp-legged old gym rat named Frankie Dunn, carries so much baggage into the ring that he practically needs a bellhop; he's a tormented Irish-Catholic who reads Yeats poems, goes to Mass every day and delights in yanking his parish priest's chain. Fact is, Frankie broke with his only child, a daughter named Katy, decades ago, and he's never gotten over that crisis of faith. Graham Greene this is not, but it'll do. Paul Haggis's screenplay, cut and pasted from a collection of short stories, Rope Burns, by a retired corner man named F.X. Toole, stinks of liniment when it needs to ("Boxing is about respect -- gettin' it for yourself and takin' it from the other guy"), but it's really about Frankie trying to reclaim fatherhood.

In this 21st century, it should come as but a mild shock that the grizzled trainer's hard-hitting protegé is a woman -- a 31-year-old woman, at that. Many traditional fight fans see female boxing as a freak show sweetened with a touch of pornographic fantasy. Who cares what they think? The old school is losing its alumni fast to age and infirmity, and for Eastwood's purposes here, a woman fighter is perfect -- especially since she is played by the extraordinarily talented Hilary Swank, who took home an Oscar for Boys Don't Cry. Without leaning too heavily on whatever she's seen in Rocky or Requiem for a Heavyweight, Swank convinces us not only that her Maggie Fitzgerald is abused trailer trash who grew up hard in the Ozarks (perfect accent, Hil), but that she, just like every other feisty, give-me-no-charity pug who ever glimpsed a ray of light, means to punch her way to freedom. There's nothing sappy or false or fake-athletic in here: Swank used no fight doubles, and we learn some boxing skills as Frankie teaches them to her. Swank jumps rope beautifully, smashes the heavy bag with authority and starches her opponents with spirit; more important, she gives off the relentless hunger and heart that every fighter needs. When her hard work inside Frankie's scummy, ill-lighted gym starts to pay off, we believe it.

It wouldn't do to say more about the powerful surrogate-daughter/surrogate-father element of Million Dollar Baby, and you must discover its pivotal heartbreak for yourself (the movie's tenth round will ring a bell for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest fans). Meanwhile, devotees of aphorism will find it aplenty in the familiar type played here by Morgan Freeman: Scrap is a canny old boxer who lost an eye years and years ago in his 109th and final fight (that was Frankie's fault, too), and he now shows a few things to the young hopefuls at the gym before bedding down for the night in the back room. As you might expect, world-weary wisdom is really his strong suit, and he dispenses it in great gobs ("Some wounds are too deep and too close to the bone") as Baby's voice-over narrator. A too-convenient dramatic device? Probably.

That aside, it's difficult not to admire Eastwood's dogged (and likely painful) pursuit of real life and authentic emotion. Baby may not be quite as compelling as Mystic River or Unforgiven, but there's something so stirring, and disquieting, too, in his quest that we cannot help but pay close attention to him. In the middle of his long career's third act, he's still searching for the secrets of things with striking resolve. You certainly can't ask more than that of any 75-year-old ex-gunslinger. ver a three-month period in 1994, machete-wielding Hutu tribesmen in Rwanda hacked to death 800,000 Tutsi men, women and children. News reports, including film footage of the unfolding carnage, were broadcast around the globe. In the face of such unremitting acts of inhumanity, the world community did nothing.

It wasn't the first time society had turned a blind eye to genocide, of course. Fifty years earlier, six million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis. When the war ended, a contrite family of nations vowed "Never again." Yet thirty years later, the world stood by while the Khmer Rouge swept across Cambodia, systematically slaughtering 1.7 million people. Then came Rwanda, followed by "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. Today it's Sudan, where government-backed Arab militias in the Darfur region seem determined to annihilate the country's black population. So much for "never again."

Hotel Rwanda, the true story of a soft-spoken Hutu hotel manager who risked his own life to save 1,200 Tutsis, may be the most important film released in the past year. Among the class of 2004, it is certainly one of the best. And much of its value comes from the fact that it is targeted at a mainstream audience.

Crass as it may sound, the movie is viewer-friendly. It's in English, with recognizable American actors in lead roles -- Don Cheadle and Nick Nolte chief among them. It lays out its horrific story in a way that is easy for Western audiences to follow. And while the filmmakers imply much violence and show hundreds of bodies strewn along the road, the actual amount of blood seen on the screen is minimal. Corpses are not visibly mutilated (as they were in real life), and the terror lies more in what viewers know to be happening than in what they actually see.

Paul Rusesabagina (Cheadle) is the house manager at Milles Collines, a Belgian-owned luxury hotel in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. A Hutu, he is married to Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), who is Tutsi. Historical tensions have long divided the two tribes. Recently there have been rumors circulating that the Hutus, who make up the majority of the population, are planning an uprising against the ruling Tutsis. Paul refuses to believe it.

When the attack does come, the Hutus spare no one. In a barbaric 100-day rampage, they slaughter 800,000 of their countrymen. A contingent of United Nations peacekeeping forces is already stationed in Rwanda, but the Security Council forbids the troops from intervening to stop the bloodshed.

Hundreds of terrified Tutsis seek refuge in Milles Collines, where Paul has been left in charge by his European bosses, who, being white, have been airlifted out of the country. Eventually, some 1,200 traumatized Tutsis and moderate Hutus fill the hotel. Paul houses them, feeds them, and repeatedly puts his own life in danger by offering bribes to Hutu rebel leaders to leave the refugees alone. But as Paul's supply of money and liquor dwindles, so does his ability to negotiate for lives.

Cheadle, always a fine actor, is outstanding here -- a somewhat willfully naive yet uncommonly decent man who sees civilization crashing and burning around him but, almost against his own better judgment, refuses to give in to it. One of the most interesting aspects of Paul's character development is how he slowly begins to realize not only the magnitude of the unfolding tragedy, but also that the world community has abandoned the Rwandans to their fate.

"You don't honestly believe that you can kill them all?" he asks a Hutu rebel leader almost rhetorically. "And why not?" replies the stone-faced man. Paul's faith in the United Nations is shattered, first by an American journalist (Joaquin Phoenix) and then by the head of U.N. forces in the region (Nolte), both of whom bitterly explain that the West plans to do nothing to stop the violence.

British director Terry George wisely eschews fancy camera work or editing here, allowing the horror and confusion of the real-life events to speak for themselves. And in Cheadle, he has found the perfect actor to convey an ordinary man who, trapped inside a waking nightmare, must rely on his own wits and willpower to keep his family safe -- and in so doing, save hundreds of families.