It is very easy to get caught up in Million Dollar Baby’s seemingly by the numbers approach, which would still turn out to be a compelling yet not quite innovative boxing movie. But then, right when the formula calls for Rocky to start shouting “Adrian! Adrian!” with eyes swollen shut and arms raised in victory, Clint Eastwood pulls a one-two punch and knocks us face-first onto the canvas. Even the casting of Next Karate Kid star, Hilary Swank, almost seems to foretell a story as tired and crusty as Eastwood’s character in the film. But make no mistakes, this film is not only sports movie-making at its finest, it’s film taken off screen, into our own sordid struggles of life.
“Some choices you don’t want to make,” says Scrap (played by Morgan Freeman), the one-time heavyweight contender who narrates the film. As in The Shawshank Redemption, the narration penetrates the viewer, and isn’t needed as much as inspiringly resonating. Unfortunately Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), is about to be presented with the biggest choice of his entire life. One he knows will be difficult to live with whatever decision he makes.
Eastwood seems refreshed after his Oscar nominated Mystic River. With Million Dollar Baby, the master storyteller strips away the unimportant excess to tell a captivating and gritty story of struggle, that’s built from the basic building blocks of narrative storytelling.
Hilary Swank plays Maggie Fitzgerald, a wannabe boxer not of training age who begs Dunn to take her under his wing. The longer Dunn hesitates, the more Maggie persists, until the two are on the fast track to a title shot. Rarely do her fights last beyond the first round, and she’s never the one lying on her back looking up at the ceiling when the bell rings.
Eastwood has tackled the trainer-trainee relationship before, with subtle themes attached – like a father alienated from his daughter for reasons unknown. Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight is probably the last inventive boxing drama, which also happened to be about female pugilists.
When the world finally comes into focus for both Maggie and Dunn (they seem to save each other), we find ourselves in a completely different moral landscape. Up to this point, the film has revolved around a traditional win or loss axis. Now we are in life and death territory, and it doesn’t look like there’s any escape – at least none that would cost Dunn anything less than his soul.
If it seems like I’m dancing around this film’s subject matter, that’s because I am. Any other method would ruin the viewing experience for those who don’t know the story. At the same time, it is difficult to address the compelling questions this film raises without giving away the big plot twist.
Along the way, Baby contrasts its violence with scenes of Eastwood’s character at church, questioning a parish priest about notions we’re taught to take on faith. Dunn can’t do that, though we get the sense he has tried. Now, he joins his trainee and his friend in doing all they can to protect what they can control. “Boxing’s about respect,” the narration informs us early on. Mr. Eastwood, you’ve certainly earned total respect from me.
© 2005 FilmFetish.com. Review by Rene Carson.