Writing a review of Million Dollar Baby is almost impossible. There are only two options: give away the plot twist and thereby ruin the experience for the reader, or keep the secret and potentially leave the reader with a false impression of what the film is about. I don’t think it’s my right to spoil movies for others, so I will take the second route and hope that I am still able to convey the power of Million Dollar Baby.
Clint Eastwood plays Frankie Dunn, a veteran trainer/manager who also operates a run-down gym. Frankie still harbors guilt over an incident years earlier when one of his fighters, Eddie “Scrap” Dupris (Morgan Freeman), lost an eye during a match. That is probably the reason why Scrap is allowed to live at the gym and do odd jobs around the place. He is also Frankie’s confidant. When Frankie’s star fighter abruptly drops him just as he’s about to contend for a title, it is Scrap who points out that the manager may not have been aggressive enough in providing opportunities.
One day, a female boxer named Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) approaches Frankie. She has lots of natural talent but no formal training and, based on his past reputation, she wants him to be her instructor. I don’t train girls, Frankie gruffly tells her, but Maggie is not dissuaded. She signs up at his gym and works out in front of him every day. Scrap notices her drive as well as her potential. After secretly encouraging her, Scrap convinces Frankie to give her a try. Reluctantly, he agrees. Not only does Maggie turn out to be a natural fighter, she also becomes a very good friend of her trainer. The two wouldn’t seem to have much in common, but they connect at a very human level.
In describing the plot this far, Million Dollar Baby doubtlessly sounds like a formulaic sports movie - another story about a washed-up trainer looking for redemption in a hot young fighter. Or perhaps it sounds like a female Rocky. In reality, it is neither of these things. In fact, it isn’t even really a boxing movie. There’s no boxing in the last hour of the film because the story focuses instead on the characters and their lives. The fact that Maggie is a boxer allows Eastwood (who directed) and screenwriter Paul Haggis (adapting stories from F.X. Toole) an entryway into the movie’s real topic.
And what is that topic? Well, I can’t say. The plot twist (for lack of a more appropriate term) isn’t gimmicky or showy. It’s not intended to shock the audience with its arrival. Instead, it is a very authentic – but unexpected – turn of events that sets the real story in motion. When it came, I felt a genuine emotional response. Revealing it to you would rob the movie of some of its power and therefore lessen the experience. It is safe to say that Million Dollar Baby deals with an issue that is very topical and emotionally charged. The characters have to make some very difficult choices, and the story follows them as they weigh their options, consider the consequences, and attempt to figure out what the “right” thing to do is.
Clint Eastwood’s direction is nothing short of brilliant. He takes material that could have been melodramatic and finds the exact right note at which to play it so that it feels real. The material has also turned out to be somewhat controversial. Despite what a few ignorant political pundits might lead you to believe, Eastwood has not made a “message movie.” Million Dollar Baby doesn’t advocate or endorse anything. It merely tells a compelling story that allows it to explore human nature. The events of the film do not occur because Eastwood wanted to preach to the audience or sway them toward a particular point of view. Instead, things unfold in a way that is natural for the characters. I don’t agree with the choices they make, but I certainly believe that these people would make these decisions. It’s not preaching; it’s just telling a good story.
The performances are superb. Hilary Swank seemed to get lost after her Oscar win for Boys Don’t Cry but here she proves that her success was no fluke. Over the course of the movie, we many different sides to Maggie: the side that wants to win, the side that wants to escape a life of minimum wage jobs and trailer park living, the side that needs a friend, etc. Swank makes us believe in every one of them. Her chemistry with Clint Eastwood is as strong as it is surprising. In recent years, Eastwood has not been afraid to play his age. He now specializes in characters who are feeling their age. We see his reluctance toward Maggie slowly turn into devotion, and sense how the guilt he feels over Scrap’s injury influences his every move. It’s a beautiful, mature performance. Morgan Freeman has a smaller but just as pivotal role as the man who sees his friend’s flaws and tries to set him on the right track. Whereas Frankie can’t stop looking back, Scrap only looks to the present and the future. His influence on Frankie is felt most deeply in the film’s final minutes.
Eastwood is really something special. He’s a director whose work has only improved with age. A year ago, he delivered Mystic River, which many considered his best film. Million Dollar Baby is even better. Let me stress again that this is not a boxing movie. It is a story about people experiencing the ups and downs of life, trying to figure out what is right in a world that rarely provides easy answers. It doesn’t matter if you love boxing or hate it; Million Dollar Baby is a powerful and unforgettably human story.
( out of four)
Million Dollar Baby is rated PG-13 for violence, some disturbing images, thematic material and language. The running time is 2 hours and 17 minutes.
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