Million Dollar Baby

Million Dollar Baby

Million Dollar Baby

directed by Clint Eastwood

starring Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman

Warner Brothers

Much of Million Dollar Baby‘s story takes place in a boxing gym, but to call it a boxing movie would be like referring to Bang the Drum Slowly as a baseball flick, or calling A River Runs Through It a film about fly fishing. In this mesmerizing film, Eastwood the Master uses the “sweet science” as a backdrop — a canvas, if you will — on which to illustrate the intertwining lives of three complex characters. The gym is owned by legendary trainer/cut man/manager Frankie (Eastwood), who along with Scrap (Morgan Freeman), an ex-prizefighter with a cloudy eye, spend their days overseeing clients ranging from true contenders to misfits with nowhere else to spend their days. It quickly becomes apparent that both have somewhat troubled pasts — and those troubles may involve boxing itself — but Frankie and Scrap have nonetheless chosen to spend the twilight of their lives in the same sweaty, dimly lit environment that they’ve spent the previous five decades working in.

Million Dollar Baby refers to Maggie (Hilary Swank), a 31-year-old diner waitress with trailer-trash roots who has journeyed to L.A. from Missouri to become a boxer, of all things. After an amateur bout, she begs Frankie to take her under his wing. Of course, he refuses, saying, “I don’t train girls.” Undaunted, Maggie becomes a member at the gym, where she stubbornly pounds a bag for weeks until Frankie relents. Under the crusty trainer’s tutelage, Maggie develops a nasty left hook and becomes a knockout artist, a championship contender with an unbeatable repertoire of combinations. Indeed, Million Dollar Baby is a character study, a Hemingway-esque tale of two old men and a young woman that Ernest himself would have envied for the skill and focus in which it is told. Eastwood’s direction is supremely economical; like Frankie’s brand of boxing, no motion, no effort is wasted. Every minute of the film reveals something as the dimensions of the trio’s relationships are expanded, while simultaneously, layer by layer is subtly stripped away from each character’s past, without digging too deep.

In the end, there’s plenty of spark for the viewers’ imagination. Swank is the perfect choice for her role; she fills Maggie with a certain innocence, a genuine earnestness and charm that few, if any, of her peers could duplicate. At the same time, Swank is completely convincing in the ring, where blood is often spilled in very realistic fashion. Morgan Freeman’s Scrap, who narrates much of the film, is not unlike the actor’s role in The Shawshank Redemption. Scrap quietly acts as Frankie’s often-unsolicited counselor, as well as sparring partner in the pair’s ongoing war of words.

In making one of his finest films, Eastwood, needless to say, is in top form both as an actor and as a director. The best movie of the year (it was released to select theaters late in 2004 in order to qualify for the upcoming Oscars) is not a film for stupid people, or for sociopaths. One has to have a certain degree of intelligence and depth of heart to fully appreciate the complexities that are presented just under Million Dollar Baby‘s deceivingly simple surface. The story will prompt many to examine their own lives, or the lives of those around them; it’s funny, it’s sad, it’s a movie that elevates the term “poignant” to a whole new level. It will make a grown man shed a tear. Like all truly great films, Million Dollar Baby will stay with the viewer not for hours, but for days, weeks, even years after seeing it.

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