Million Dollar Baby: Worth Every Cent
It is exciting to watch a filmmaker at the height of their powers tell a moving, memorable story.
Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” is such an example of this.
Frankie Frank (Clint Eastwood), a former boxer, now owns a rundown gym in downtown Los Angeles and trains hopeful boxers on the side. He handpicks the boxers, coaxing them, bringing them up through the ranks slowly. Too slowly for his current protégé, who jumps ship just before his big chance at the championship. Watching all of this, with a knowing eye, is Eddie Scrap – Iron Dupris (Morgan Freeman). Eddie is a former boxer who was once trained by Frank. Now, he manages Frank’s gym for him. One day, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank) walks into the gym and starts training. She asks Frank to become her trainer. Initially, he turns her down, using her age and lack of experience as reasons. As Maggie proves she is determined to become a boxer, Frank gives in to her requests and becomes her mentor.
“Million Dollar Baby” is a film about boxers. It is not a film about boxing. The story revolves around the three main characters and their relationships with one another. Boxing occasionally happens, it is Maggie’s goal to become a boxer, so the film is going to have some scenes involving a ring and gloves.
Hillary Swank is amazing as Maggie. She loses herself in the character, showing Maggie’s drive and determination as the character struggles to make ends meet working a job as a waitress on Venice Beach. There are probably more scenes of Maggie working, riding the bus, counting pennies, eating leftover scraps, and training then there are of actual boxing matches. As Maggie struggles with her long days, Swank doesn’t let the character slow down or become depressed. This is her dream, and probably her only shot at getting out of the gutter. Every little step towards this goal makes her happy.
Morgan Freeman is also great as the older, perhaps wiser, boxer who watches Frank’s gym. He and Frank are friends, Frank was a trainer late in Eddie’s career. But their relationship is more than friendship. Now, Eddie is more of the mentor to Frank’s character, roles that were previously reversed. Freeman’s portrayal of this character is very quiet, but it works perfectly. This man has seen a lot and doesn’t have a lot. He doesn’t mind sharing his thoughts. He pushes Frank to take Maggie on as a student and also becomes emotionally invested in her fate.
The weak link in the trio is Eastwood. He does a great job with the direction of the film, but Eastwood has difficulty convincing me that he is anyone other than Eastwood. He is a bit like Gary Cooper or John Wayne now. He is, perhaps, too iconic for us to forget that we are ever watching Eastwood play a character. That isn’t to say that his character isn’t intensely interesting and very real. Frank frequently visits the local church seeking guidance from the Father. He’s been going every day for years and he and the father have a prickly relationship. Frank likes to goad him on and the Father is frankly tired of him. This relationship pays off extremely well during the course of the film. The relationship between Frank and Maggie grows until we feel that they share real admiration for one another.
The other regulars of the gym are not quite as believable. One character, in particular, sticks out like a sore thumb. A skinny red neck seems to be involved for comic relief and it isn’t needed.
Clint Eastwood is a masterful director. Intent on letting scenes unfold at their natural pace, his films seem all the more real. He doesn’t bother with special effects or car chases (anymore) and the story benefits from it. His last few films have explored the main characters, creating rich stories that really move the viewer.
The film was written by Paul Haggis. Haggis is the creator of one of my favorite television series of all time, the little scene ‘EZ Streets’, a cop drama from the mid 90s that was cancelled after a few seasons. It is easy to see his touch on this film. In both stories, he creates rich believable characters that make each seem real, moving and powerful.
I can’t recommend “Million Dollar Baby” enough. If you miss it, you will miss one of the best dramas to grace the silver screen in the last few years.