Adapted from a series of fictional short stories by former boxer Jerry Boyd, “Million Dollar Baby,” has successfully inked an overwhelmingly potent script that will have you reflecting on it long after you peel your feet off the sticky floor of the theater. By pulling believable and sincere performances from his actors, Clint Eastwood’s direction feels just as commanding as it was in “Mystic River.” Playing the lead role of female boxer Maggie Fitzgerald is academy award-winner Hilary Swank (“Boys Don’t Cry”) a role described by some as her second shot at the role of a lifetime. Possibly the best actor to complement Eastwood’s talent is Morgan Freeman (“The Shawshank Redemption”), who seems to have a telepathic link with his characters. Playing the role of gym manager Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris, Freeman delivers an Oscar-caliber performance.
Eastwood’s films all exhibit a similar trait; slow-paced story lines with intense drama occurring at key moments. With “Million Dollar Baby,” the soft, deep voice of Eddie (Freeman) acts as a narrator throughout the whole film. We are immediately introduced to Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) who is something of a boxing guru. Suffering from some past heartbreak, Frankie only trains young fighters who eventually leave him to go on to a professional career. Enter Eddie, long-time friend and trainee of Frankie, who now manages his “Hit Pit Gym.” Freeman and Eastwood skillfully one-up each other in several scenes together, which are some of the most delightful in the film.
Fresh after losing his latest fighter, Frankie notices Maggie, a poor Southern girl who has hopes of training with the great master. Swank’s performance is good, not great, but asserts her as a sure leading lady. After the predictable, “I don’t train girls” banter, Frankie decides to take Maggie based on her loyalty and commitment. As expected, she gets better and better, and soon has a shot at the title. Aside from the moments of humor, at this point the film does not seem like anything special.
A large portion of this time is used to explain the terrible home life of Maggie, the one-sided relationship Frankie has with his daughter and the tragedy that links Frankie’s and Eddie’s past together. The characters are fully fleshed-out, and we sympathize with them. After Maggie receives a serious injury in a title bout, she asks Frankie to euthanize her rather than live a life that has no dignity. The last 20 minutes of the film are devoted to Frankie’s decision, and every second of it is like a wave, slowly crashing over the audience, transforming your tear ducts to the California aqueduct. Only once in a while does a good script find its way into the right director’s hands with the right actors chosen to bring it to life, and, fortunately, this is one of them.
The boxing scenes are choreographed and shot in the textbook “Raging Bull” style, where you get to see the droplets of sweat and blood from every slow-motion knockout punch. The cinematography is beautiful with its contrasts of light and scenery, giving a black and white feel to this movie Interesting to note is the fact that Clint Eastwood also composed the jazz soundtrack to this film.
This is Oscar season, folks. Every new dramatic movie out right now will be contending for the nominations. “Million Dollar Baby” comes from the heart and the sincere acting oozes off the celluloid. The downer ending coupled with the small appeal to our demographic might keep some away, but this film displays dramatic excellence coming from people with a lifetime of experience.