Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, Jay Baruchel, Mike Colter, Lucia Rijker, Brian O'Byrne, Anthony Mackie, Margo Martindale
MPAA Rating: (for violence, some disturbing images, thematic material and language)
Running Time: 2:17
Release Date: 12/15/04 (limited); 1/21/05 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
There are really two films in Million Dollar Baby, and both of them are unexpected. What Clint Eastwood has done is turn the sports movie formula on its ear with this film, focusing on the human aspects of boxing and shifting focus directly to the ultimate price of such an endeavor with a twist at the end of the second act. The plot development is, to say the least, a complete surprise, and it makes the little details that have come before it more important while making the major developments seem almost insignificant by comparison. The first two acts follow a familiar structure, but screenwriter Paul Haggis (working from the stories of F.X. Toole) concentrates on the characters' personal histories, giving the material an unabashed humanity and compassion. And that is where the strength of the film lies. In depicting the way these characters relate and think of themselves, we see how their decisions and indecisions—actions and inactions—affect themselves and those around them. Even the final act, which has already erroneously been taken as a social statement (I will only give generalizations), debates a controversial issue but brings it squarely to the specifics of these characters and the situation in which they find themselves.
Eastwood not only directs and scores the film but also takes on the role of Frankie Dunn, a retired fighter who owns his own gym and trains and manages up-and-coming boxers. His current protégé is Big Willie Little (Mike Colter), a fighter ready to take his shot at the title. Frank isn't too keen on the idea, telling him that he's still got two or three more fights left before it's time, a statement Willie has heard too many times before from Frank. Frank's partner Scrap (Morgan Freeman), another former boxer who lost sight in one eye during a particularly brutal final fight, sees things in the gym, like Willie "not talking" to another manager. One day a woman named Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) walks into the gym. She had talked to Frank after a fight about wanting him to train her, and now she's paid for a six-month membership. Frank refuses to train a girl. Eventually, Willie leaves Frank for another manager and wins the title bout, and Maggie continues to work on her own, gaining some help from Scrap late at night after everyone has gone. Frank notices that she's improved slightly, and to get her to stop asking, he finally agrees to be her trainer.
Familiar scenes follow. Maggie trains, gets better, and practices her footwork while serving food at her day job as a waitress and paying the bills. A montage shows her fighting career progress, knocking out opponents in the first round and not listening to Frankie, who tells her people won't pay to see that over and over again. They do, though, and people in power in women's boxing begin to take notice, even hoping that she'll travel to London to take a shot at the British title. Frankie seems destined to repeat history by refusing to take the offer, but there's something deeper behind he's reasoning. The opponent she'd have to face is Billie "The Blue Bear" (Lucia Rijker), a particularly brutal and dishonest boxer, who has no qualms hitting a challenger while she's down. Frank sees his first role as manager/trainer as a protector, and that feeling is heightened with his involvement with Maggie. Frank has become estranged from his daughter; he writes to her every day. Each and every letter arrives at his home marked "return to sender." He goes to church every day as well, galling the pastor (Brian O'Byrne, who has the best line in the film responding to Frank's question about Jesus as a demigod).
Maggie's also in a familial rut. Her father is deceased, and her mother Earline (Margo Martindale) worries that her daughter's gift of a house will lead to stoppage of fraudulent welfare checks. Frank and Maggie fill in voids in their respective lives, and Eastwood lets this relationship develop deliberately. Their bond is pure and kind of beautiful this way, and it relies as much on what is unspoken as what they do say to each other. Eastwood's persona fits into Frank's world-weary gruffness, and as events unfold that lead him down a path of indecisiveness, Eastwood superbly conveys the depth of his desperation. Hilary Swank rises far above the potential of hick stereotype with her portrayal of Maggie, giving her a combination of a good heart, determination, and some impressive moves in the ring. The boxing matches themselves—short and to the point as they may be—are wholly involving in their own right, and Eastwood and editor Joel Cox give us the impact of each punch and the sensation of each victory. In between fights, the characters breathe—their relationships cement—and our understanding of and sympathy for them evoke strong emotional reactions.
Part of the success comes from the way the film's world exists on its own. The day-to-day routine of the gym is hinted at with scenes involving Scrap and Frank as they discuss their past, the eccentricity of member Danger Barch (Jay Baruchel), who is convinced he will win the title, or how full of holes Scrap's socks are. Scrap himself plays the role of narrator for the story, a device that ultimately disservices the material by occasionally distancing us from the proceedings. The majority of information received during the voice-overs amounts to philosophical musings, and most of what we see needs little expansion. The device functions better when it's revealed in the end what it represents, but until that point, the film is emotionally involving enough on its own. The best example is how, with very little development in each case, Eastwood manages to stir negative feelings toward Billie and Maggie's family, because the story strikes the heart enough to ignore any rational thoughts of how simplistic such a response is.It's in the final act that Million Dollar Baby finds an immense pathos. After a setup suggesting an inspirational underdog story, Haggis takes us down a shocking road that turns the boxing into unimportant setup and makes the characters and their relationships even more vital than they were before. The fact that the film manages to make such a sudden shift and not crumble under the colossal weight that comes with it is a testament to Eastwood's ability to tell a story and find the human truth at its core.
Copyright © 2005 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.