Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Release Date: December 15th, 2004 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Clint Eastwood Actors: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, Jay Baruchel, Mike Colter, Lucia Rijker, Brian O’Byrne, Anthony Mackie, Riki Lindhome, Michael Pena
scar (and, perhaps, quite a number of awards groups) tends to favor boxing movies. Or, rather, boxing seems to be an unusually cinematic subject matter, as it finds its way into motion pictures virtually every single year. Indeed, there’s something naturally movie-worthy about the sport, from the various ways it can be thrillingly shot, to the metaphors it can muster, to the basic notions of duels and antagonism and perseverance.
“People love violence.” But, insists Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman), boxing is about respect. His longtime pal Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), the best cut-man in the business, doesn’t have a whole lot of respect for anyone, but he excels at what he does. Currently, he’s grooming “Big” Willie Little (Mike Colter) for a championship, coaching him at his modest gym. When Margaret “Maggie” Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a 31-year-old girl from Missouri with an uncommon amount of heart, pesters Dunn to take her under his wing, he grows frustrated and belligerent. “I don’t train girls.”
“Everything in boxing is backwards.” Dupris is softer around the edges, inspiring him to give a few pointers to the persistent woman – including lending her a speed bag unearthed from Dunn’s back room, and refusing to evict her from the premises. So when Willie expectedly drops Dunn for the glamor, money, and fame of better management, it’s with less reluctance that the aging gym owner finally agrees to show Maggie a thing or two.
Maggie isn’t just an underdog in the sport. Being a woman is in itself an additional hurdle, while she’s also afflicted with poverty, limited connections and resources, and undependable family. But it isn’t just the downbeat scenarios that inspire sympathy – and then admiration. Swank is exceptional in the role, aided by a clever, witty screenplay (by Paul Haggis) and the fact that her character was written to be smart and compassionate herself. It’s a sensational part for an incredibly skilled actress. For contrast, and also for that rare, amusing father/daughter or mentor/mentee pairing, Eastwood continues to perfect his crabby, crotchety old man routine; a bitter, regretful persona with a distinct inability to do the wrong thing. And Freeman once again aptly handles the wise guide character, relaying philosophical observations on everything from boxing techniques to life itself, while also narrating in that funereal yet calm manner.
Like every pugilist tale, training montages and suspenseful bouts take up a sizable portion of screentime (photographed sharply by repeat collaborator Tom Stern). But Eastwood isn’t interested solely in the action; “Million Dollar Baby” is a very human story, intent on examining realistic interactions, wholesome bonding, and a crushing sequence in which Maggie attempts to reconnect with her mother (reinforcing the themes of trust, reliability, and the importance of personal values). There are further messages and character development in subplots with Scrap-Iron’s former career, Frankie’s frequent visits to church, and with a wimpy but determined fighter (Jay Baruchel), all while remarkably subtle foreshadowing sets up the devastating finale (a twist that can’t be forgotten, but which packs a considerable punch for anyone unfamiliar with its existence). As the film draws to its powerhouse close, gentle piano music by Eastwood himself gives this haunting tragedy an even higher level of poignancy, revealing that, despite using boxing as a motivational tool for the characters, the story is actually about varying shades of love, suffering, and the human condition.
– Mike Massie