For all you’ve heard about it, the one thing Million Dollar Baby is NOT is a boxing movie.
For a good three-fourths of the film, Baby looks, acts and feels like an excellent boxing film. Then that left cross comes out of nowhere and floors you, changing the focus and meaning of the film. To give away any surprises would be criminal, so reviews for Baby so far tend to stick to its boxing roots.
Baby poses as a feel-good boxing flick with a girl-power edge to it, but the true story comes from its stars and the bond that is created between them.
Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) is a man who has let his guard down too many times in life and been sucker punched for it. Dunn’s fashioned his own mantra for boxing, “Always protect yourself,” and he lives it inside the ring and out. He owns a struggling gym for prospective fighters and is even training a contender for the title. This contender feels forced to leave when it becomes apparent he’ll never get to take that risk of a title shot with Frankie a trainer. Risks are not Frankie’s forte.
It’s about that time when Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank in an already Golden Globe-winning performance) tries to coax the stubborn old goat into teaching her to box.
Frankie balks, wanting nothing to do with her. He says he doesn’t train girls and that she’s too old to be starting her career in her early thirties. But determined and intractable, Maggie shows up everyday to train, working until the lights are out.
Frankie spends his days in his gym, usually conversing with his old boxing mate and janitor, Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman, in his best role since he left Shawshank). When he’s not there, Frankie is usually found at church, asking the priest elementary religious questions, or writing his daughter, who always puts his letters right back in the mail marked “return to sender.”
After a heartfelt soliloquy from Maggie, Frankie finally caves in and helps her, but remains standoffish-agreeing only to train her and stipulating that she needs to find someone else to manage her.
Frankie lasts half a fight before intervening on Maggie’s behalf. When he feels like her manager is not acting in her best interest, he takes over. With Frankie’s help, Maggie starts to immediately progress.
Maggie starts to climb the ranks, and Frankie starts to open up to her. Taking on a father figure role to her, they create a genuine rapport that is the most memorable part of the film.
Million Dollar Baby is priceless filmmaking by Eastwood, a director who has recaptured his form even as his age climbs to 75. It’s the most emotional experience I had at the movies in 2004. You may just leave the theater shaken and touched.
Brian Mulligan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.