In his day, Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) was the best “cut man” in the business, working magic to give his battered fighters one more round. Now he passes his time as the owner/ manager of the Hit Pit, a dank. sweat soaked gym When he isn’t grooming fighters who dream of being the next big thing, he’s swapping insults with the gym’s live-in janitor and former fighter Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman) or annoying the priest at his local church. Frankie’s daily regime takes it on the chin when Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) skulks into the gym. Equal parts raw talent and unwaivering determination, she’s looking for someone to train her, and despite Frankie’s repeated rebuffs, she remains a fixture in the gym that he can’t avoid.
After seeing the trailer for this film many viewers will likely be left with the impression that 'Million Dollar Baby' is another sports film where the underdog triumphs against all odds. Even if was as simple as that, you could rest assured that given the cast’s pedigree it would be a good film. Indeed the training and fight sequences are both inspirational and enthralling, but what sets this film apart is what happens when the gloves are off.
Hilary Swank has come a long way from 'Beverly Hills 90210' and 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' (the movie that is – the series is of course one of the best to ever hit the airwaves). For her role as Maggie, Swank underwent a grueling workout schedule that included weight training to pack bulk on her frame and boxing to make her look credible in the fight scenes. Swank captures the desperation of Maggie’s hard scrabble existence both in actions and words, appearing far more weary than her years should allow. She’s never cocky and when she starts winning fights, her sullen disposition transforms into a remarkable glow that draws you in. Amazingly hers is not the only knockout performance in the film.
It would be easy to call Frankie a stereotypical Clint Eastwood character: grizzled, gruff and sullen, we’ve seen him before. But once again, Eastwood carves out a unique multi-layered character and just when you’re sure that you’ve figured Frankie out, he does something unexpected. Frankie, like Maggie, has clearly experienced his share of despair and remains guarded, thus the occasional glimpses of tenderness that come through the tough guy façade are more powerful without becoming blatant attempts at tear-jerking. Completing this tour de force cast is Morgan Freeman as Eddie, the former-contender-cum-wiseman who serves as narrator, and the instigator responsible for bringing the leads together. Eddie has the annoying habit, in Frankie’s eye at least, of always speaking the truth, and it’s clear that theirs is a powerful bond. It is the chemistry between Eastwood and Swank however that takes this film from pedestrian to exceptional.
The relationship between Maggie and Frank is initially tepid at best, but eventually he can’t help being won over by her enthusiasm. As a director, Eastwood is exacting with the pacing, drawing the characters out slowly. This ensures a natural evolution and allows us to accept the transformation of their relationship from a fighter/trainer to familial. These insights in turn provide the film’s most powerful and poignant moments.
It is difficult to review 'Million Dollar Baby' and do it justice when you can’t talk about a large chunk of the film. Suffice it to say, it offers something for every cinephile: superb direction, a brilliant script, a haunting score, and outstanding performances by a standout cast. I’ve yet to meet a reviewer who didn’t rush home to edit their “Top Ten List” after screening this film.