|Million Dollar Baby (2004)|
|Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Wednesday, 15 December 2004|
The first rule of boxing, we’re told, is “protect yourself at all times.” But though this movie deals with boxers and is rarely far from the ring, it’s not about boxing, but about relationships. And though you can try to apply that same rule to relations with other people, if you’re human, you can’t. Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) thinks he has done what’s necessary to protect himself, but he’s not the cold guy he pretends to be. That’s his salvation and, sadly, his sorrow. However, Eastwood knows, and wants us to know, that despite what happens to Frankie, he’d rather have gone through all this than not. You’ll probably feel the same way.
“Million Dollar Baby” is one of the best films of Eastwood’s career as a boxer. It doesn’t have the emotional complexity of “Mystic River,” nor the shattering effect of “Unforgiven,” but it’s in a league with those, a highlight of his career. As is always the case with Eastwood as director, he focuses his attention on the characters and the story; it’s made in a simple, straightforward, classical style, honest and direct. It’s not the first time Eastwood has depicted a man in a spiritual crisis—certainly that was one of the themes in “Unforgiven” and “Mystic River”—but it’s the first time I know of that he’s depicted the crisis in religious terms.
Frankie Dunn runs a modestly successful gym, the Hit Pit, in downtown Los Angeles. He was a boxer briefly in his youth, but dropped that for a career as a trainer, finally opening the Hit Pit. Currently, he’s managing promising Big Willie Little (Mike Colter), whom he’s sure will get a title match—eventually. Frankie’s failing as a trainer is in too much caution—he’s protecting his fighters at all times, even when they don’t want it. So eventually, they all leave him for a more dynamic, daring manager.
The general handyman at the Hit Pit is Scrap (Morgan Freeman), an aging, retired boxer, a long-time friend of Frankie’s, who managed Scrap at the end of his career. As a result of his final fight, Scrap lost the sight in his right eye. (Freeman wears a pale contact lens.) Though Scrap never blamed him, Frankie has always felt responsible for the accident.
The latest addition to the gym is Danger Barch (Jay Baruchel), who keeps announcing his intention of taking on the welterweight champ—unaware that the boxer retired a few years ago. Danger is the target of gym regulars, and is sometimes protected by Scrap, who feels a reluctant responsible for the young man, who, in addition to being slightly retarded, is a hay-in-his-hair hick. Frankie merely sighs and ignores Danger.
But also in the gym lately is Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), who’s determined to be a boxer, and determined that Frankie will manage her. He tells her he’s too old, and he never trains girls, but she still calls him boss. Frankie has troubles of his own; a devout Catholic, he attends Mass every day, somewhat to the annoyance of Father Horvak (Brian O’Byrne), since Frankie keeps asking him doctrinal questions. Frankie lives alone in a modest bungalow, and writes every week to his long-estranged daughter. We never know what came between them, but we do know that she always returns his letters, unopened, unread, and that Frankie saves all of them in a shoebox—which is nearly overflowing with the rejected letters.
So Frankie has tried to build a wall around himself. He’s cranky to Maggie, who simply will not be discouraged, and he snaps at Scrap occasionally, too. But when Willie, like all his boxers recently, leaves Frankie to go to a more enthusiastic manager. Frankie is even more lost than usual. And he begins paying attention to Maggie, worn down be her persistence and eagerness.
He works her hard, and she improves—in fact, she improves so much that in her first few bouts, she kayos her opponents in the first round. Frankie is impressed despite himself, and even more despite himself, is becoming fond of Maggie. When a match takes them to the area, Frankie takes Maggie to visit her mother, whom she’s just bought a house. But her mother is sullen and ungrateful, uninterested in Frankie’s impressive career.
Finally, Frankie gets a title bout.
Until this point, “Million Dollar Baby” (not the best title) is a lot like other sports movies: we see our heroine struggling to overcome the odds, we see the older trainer who’s guiding her career, we see her through victory after victory. This familiarity is the film’s most serious weakness, and the element that prevents it from being ranked as a truly outstanding movie. However, it takes an unexpected turn that puts the film in another category altogether.
We care about the characters. Eastwood’s performance may be similar to almost all his others, but he’s never been more expressive, in his controlled fashion. We feel Frankie’s emotions in a way often not possible (or even wanted) with many of Eastwood’s other characters. Frankie is a hero, a warrior, in old age, with nothing before him but weakness and death—that is, until he meets Maggie. She revitalizes him, shapes his life, gives it purpose and direction, and he comes to life in a way he clearly thought would never happen to him again. Wisely, in his recent films, Eastwood not only acknowledges his age but embraces it, makes it part of the fabric of the film.
Hilary Swank won the Oscar for her indelible work in “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999), but some of her choices since then have been disappointing, like “The Core.” Here, though, she returns to form. Maggie is vividly realized; she’s lively, energetic and a little fearful. She tries to give her trust to Frankie before he’s ready to accept it, and we can see the caution in her eyes. It’s a performance as honest and direct as the movie itself.
Morgan Freeman, who narrates, is excellent in the Morgan Freeman role; he always is. However, perhaps he should think twice about accepting another role as the moral center, the wise man, of the movie. Let’s see him play a despicable bastard; he’d be a GREAT despicable bastard. This is not to diminish his work here. Scrap is a strong old man whose life has narrowed down to just this gym—he even sleeps there. He’s seen hundreds of muscular young men come and go, and few have caught his attention. But both Maggie and, unexpectedly, Danger do just that. We can also see the affection, respect and concern he has for Frankie, despite the emotional wall Frankie thinks he’s erected around himself.
“Million Dollar Baby” was written by Paul Haggis from several stories in Rope Burns, a collection by F.X. Toole. The author was really Jerry Boyd, himself a long-time fight manager who was considered the best cut man in the business. Boyd died just as he was finishing his first novel. This is an especially honest movie about boxing; it’s realistic, it doesn’t glamorize the rough sport, nor does it paint it any worse than it really is. It does take a few minutes to become accustomed to seeing young women pounding each other, but the film steadfastly refuses to suggest that in today’s boxing world, this is even a little unusual. Because it isn’t.
Eastwood also composed the understated, evocative score, and the low-key, dark-toned photography is by Tom Stern, who also shot “Mystic River” and “Blood Work” for Eastwood. The grittily realistic production design is by the reliable Henry Bumstead, who’s almost ninety now. Bumstead worked for Hitchcock (“Vertigo,” “Topaz,” “Family Plot”), and was Universal’s principal production designer for many years; this is his ninth collaboration with Eastwood. The sets, principally the Hit Pit, are realistic enough you can practically smell the sweat and blood. The fights are brief, brutal and realistic.
“Million Dollar Baby” is a very strong drama that vividly depicts three people linked by respect and affection. At times, it is deeply moving, even troubling, but ultimately we’re left with the idea that all this was worth it.