Boxing trainer Frank Dunn (Clint Eastwood) is one of the best in the business, but he and his Hit Pit Gym are showing signs of wear. Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank, "Boys Don't Cry") walks in wanting to be a fighter, but Frank outright refuses to train 'a girl.' Maggie shows promise, though, getting tips from gym custodian Scrap (Morgan Freeman, "Unforgiven"), one of Frank's ex-boxers and best friend. Frank witnesses Maggie being mishandled by a manager he suggested and can't help himself - he takes her on and turns her into a "Million Dollar Baby."
Clint Eastwood's graceful direction of this old-fashioned boxing flick reveals it for what it really is - a three-way character study that observes all the conflicting emotions that coexist with love. Eastwood the actor has never been better and Swank displays an aggressive physical transformation and athletic ability.
Frank is a man ridden by guilt over his estranged relationship with his daughter (his weekly letters come back stamped 'Return to Sender'). He goes to Mass almost daily, then delights in needling Father Horvak (Brian O'Byrne, "Intermission") over his faith's mysteries ('Can you spare a few minutes for the Immaculate Conception?'). Frank's background is provided by Scrap in voice-over narration and he shares many of Frank's philosophies. 'Show me a fighter that's nothing but heart and I'll show you a man waiting for a beating' is one of them, but ironically it is Frank's over-protectiveness and caution in entering his boxers in title fights that have cost him influence and a higher profile in the sport. Frank doesn't just bear guilt over his daughter, but for Scrap, who lost an eye after insisting Frank continue to patch him up during a fight.
Maggie provides her own sketchy back story. At thirty-one, Frank tells her she's too old, but Maggie insists that boxing is the only thing that makes her feel good. She calls herself trash and gives a family litany that includes a brother in prison, a welfare cheating sister and a mother who weighs over 300 pounds. We don't know why she's set her sights on the resistant Frank, but in him she finds the father figure she misses while he knows taking her on could open him to the emotional pain he has experienced with his own child. Scrap plays Cupid and friend to both, a more loyal confessor than the priest.
Emmy award winning TV writer Paul Haggis adapts F.X. Toole's short story "Rope Burns" with grit, humor and heart. Frank's gruff sparring with Scrap is both funny and revelatory. Scrap's character is fleshed out by his subtle undercutting of Frank's gym management when he takes Maggie's well-earned dues in advance, knowing Frank will not relinquish her money, yet lets the mentally challenged Danger (Jay Baruchel, "The Rules of Attraction") maintain an illusion of training for free. Maggie is determined, but not until Frank meets her opportunistic, unappreciative family (Margo Martindale, "The Human Stain," Riki Lindhome and Anthony Mackie, "She Hate Me"), do we understand the absolute void in her life that Frank has filled.
Eastwood lets his film build slowly, layering little character insights over what, at first, appears to be the Rockyesque tale of two emotionally needy people finding each other and 'filling holes' on their way to mutual success. A third act tragedy, however, turns the film back towards its earlier, amusing riffs on faith that now become serious, the definition of a man, a redemption. Eastwood's portrayal of Frank is very moving and Freeman has the perfect voice to tell Frank's story. Swank's character is not as well defined, but her chemistry with Eastwood is solid, her accent is believable and her fights scenes (no stunt doubles were used) are realistic (except, perhaps, for the character's propensity for first round knockouts).
The production, designed by eighty-nine year old Eastwood vet Henry Bumstead, has a downtrodden look perfect as the environs for its characters. Eastwood's simple guitar score is used sparingly and fits the mood.
"Million Dollar Baby" is the work of an American legend at the top of his form. If the film doesn't sucker punch you on first viewing, its humanity is sure to haunt for days afterward.
Director Clint Eastwood seemed assured of winning the Oscar last year for his masterful helming job with Mystic River” but, after three years of rolling out the internationally acclaimed, three part “The Lord of the Rings,” Peter Jackson finally receive his due. Now, the septuagenarian director vies again for the golden statuette with his foray into the world of female boxing, with Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman, in “Million Dollar Baby.”
Eastwood has crafted a boxing movie that holds more akin to the 1956 Paul Newman starrer, “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” or “Requiem For A Heavyweight” than the “Rocky” franchise, to which it is most compared. On the surface, the latter comparison seems apt but, when you get more deeply in “M$B,” you realize that this is a much more old-fashioned sports film that takes a dramatic plot twist in its finale that transport it from the realm of cliché. This story could be taken back to the 1940’s requiring only one change to make it contemporary for that era – make the femme Maggie character (Swank) into a guy.
Eastwood stars as Frankie Dunn, a former fighter-turned-manager who has trained a string of top fighters over the years. His problem, begun years ago when he advised his friend, Scrap (Morgan Freeman), to continue a fight only to be blinded in one eye. Since then, Frank can’t let go and holds back one after another boxer because he is afraid they are not trained well enough. One day, Maggie shows up at the gym and begins a campaign to get the veteran manager to train her to be a boxer. Unbeknownst to Frankie, Scrap takes an active interest in the dedicated 31-year old woman and secretly coaches her with the hopes of attracting Frank’s attention. The plan works and Maggie begins a steady rise to the top.
This is filmmaking by a man who understands his craft from both sides of the camera. Clint Eastwood shows his half century of acting experience in his well seasoned performance as a man who has suffered (and given) some hard knocks over the years and is guilty of, if anything, caring too much. His initially gruff outer shell is tempered with humor as he faithfully attends mass every day and takes any opportunity to theologically bait his parish priest, Father Horvak (Brian F.O’Byrne). Frank’s grudging faith in the church and God is called upon to give him strength when tragedy befalls his tiny “family” of Scup, Maggie and the gym’s simple-minded “mascot,” Danger (Jay Baruchel).
M$B” is an actor’s film and there are three solid performances garnered her. Eastwood doesn’t really stretch in the role of Frankie Dunn. It is a comfortable performance with its patented gruff exterior and softly sentimental interior. Swank is OK as Maggie but it took a while for me to believe, as the story unfolds, that she had it in her to be a boxer. The sudden transformation into a Terminator-like, one-two punch knockout queen is handled a bit too pat and the repetitive nature of win after win is distracting. Morgan Freeman as best friend, secret mentor, film narrator and all around nice guy is, of course, a pleasure to watch.
Fighting techs are well handled, though a bit perfunctory, but the story is well-paced, entertaining and, in the end, sobering. “M$B” is an old-fashioned, throwback kind of sports film, made contemporary, with graceful performances and craftsman direction. I give it a B+.
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