Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) has trained and managed some incredible boxers. The most important lesson he teaches them is one that rules his own life – above all, always protect yourself. Thanks to a painful estrangement from his daughter, Frankie has been unwilling to get close to anyone for a very long time. His only friend is Scrap (Morgan Freeman), an ex-boxer who looks after Frankie’s gym and knows that beneath his gruff exterior is a man seeking the forgiveness that somehow continues to elude him.
Then Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) walks into his gym. She’s never had much in life, but there are two things she does know – what she wants and is willing to do to get it. Maggie’s come this far on raw talent, unshakable focus and a tremendous force of will. Yet more than anything, what she wants is for someone to believe in her.
As Frankie doesn’t want or need that type of responsibility, he tells Maggie he doesn’t train girls and, besides, she’s too old. Yet, encouraged by Scrap, Maggie continues to train at the gym until Frankie eventually agrees to take her on, clearing the way for the two to bond over the pain and loss of their respective pasts and, in doing so, find a sense of family in each other that both had long since lost.
Based on a collection of short stories written by F.X. Toole, the plot of Million Dollar Baby may have a familiar feel to it, but that doesn’t stop it from being a superb drama that packs a huge emotional wallop. Following up his excellent Mystic River, Clint Eastwood applies his trademark easygoing yet focused directorial style to Baby, allowing the strengths of Paul Haggis’ screenplay, in particular the rich characters and dialogue, to rise and meet a superb cast to make a sports picture that, like the best genre entries, turns out to be about much more than the actual sport.
Redemption, second chances and coming to grips with the past, themes explored by Eastwood in many of his previous efforts, are explored once again here. One would figure that by this point in his career, Eastwood would have run out of things to say about such things. But by continuing to do it with freshness, brutal honesty and welcome moments of humour, Eastwood’s career behind the camera continues to display the level of excellence that few in the filmmaking world are lucky enough to come across even once.
In terms of acting, Million Dollar Baby is a three-character story centring on Frankie, Maggie and Scrap, and Eastwood, Swank and Freeman make the most of that. Eastwood perfectly conveys Frankie’s bottled up guilt and regret, while Freeman, who also narrates the film, is a quiet, commanding presence as Scrap in a performance that might finally land him an Oscar. Ms. Swank’s performance, proves that her Best Actress win for Boys Don’t Cry was no fluke. This trio of understated and effective performances does a fantastic job in getting the viewer to connect with and believe in the characters.
At a time of the film year where studios force feed us merely adequate films posing as the Second Coming of Cinema (The Aviator, anyone?), it is an absolute joy to see a movie like Million Dollar Baby, much like its female protagonist, come out of nowhere to knock us out. Produced for a low $30 million and shot, edited and released in less than six months time, few had heard or knew about the film prior to its limited Christmas week release in the United States.
In solely focusing on the work at hand, Eastwood has delivered something that has been sorely missing from the recent crop of movies – an intelligent drama for adults respectful of its audience, willing to take chances with its source material and manages to be both moving and uplifting without resorting to manipulation. Next to Alexander Payne’s Sideways, Million Dollar Baby is the best American film of the last twelve months.