Million Dollar Baby
"Million Dollar Baby" is like the fighter who tells you where he's going to hit you and just how badly it's going to hurt, and then proves his point by doing exactly that. We can guess from the moment would-be boxer Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) walks into old Frankie Dunn's low-rent L.A. gym and persists beyond all reason in hanging around until he finally agrees to become her trainer, that she will grow into a masterful fighter. And we can also guess that there will be a heavy price to be paid for her success.
Clint Eastwood, as Frankie, is the cardboard character it seems every fight film needs. Gruff, short-tempered, he's carrying a hidden secret that just might reveal the heart of gold inside. And Morgan Freeman, as Scrap (Scrap? come on!), the old one-eyed boxer who cleans the place and narrates the story, is a cliché incarnate. Veteran of a hundred and nine fights (he lost the eye in the last one), carrying a mop, sleeping on a cot in the gym, he is the voice of reason whenever Frankie gets the sulks. And compounding the problem are Eastwood's flaws as a director - overcutting within scenes, chopping the narrative flow into little bits, setting his camera without imagination or purpose - they are visible everywhere in the film. As a director he is a blunt instrument. And yet the film grabs us and holds us and won't let go until we see the final credits on the screen.
There are two reasons for this. The first is Hilary Swank as Maggie. Maggie is thirty when we meet her, an escapee from her fractured Missouri family - father dead, brother in prison, mother a welfare cheat, unwed sister with baby. Swank makes us believe in every single bit of Maggie's pain and frustration and willfulness and hope and grit and talent for boxing. It's an extraordinary performance that has deservedly been nominated for an Academy Award.
The second reason is the power of the story. There's a reason boxing films almost always work, and that is that they are about pain. The pain of training, the pain in the ring, the emotional pain that all fighters carry from childhood (otherwise why choose a career that is built on giving and receiving pain?). To the extent that that pain speaks to us, we are joined to the film.
Eastwood the actor would seem the perfect casting choice to play Frankie, with his lined face and hoarse voice and beady eyes; but I think Eastwood the director has made a bad choice. As an actor Eastwood never surprises us, never rises above the material; he's still The Man With No Name, only forty years older. And once again Morgan Freeman is reduced to playing the wise narrator spouting a collection of bromides. But every time Swank is on screen the film jumps a mile in the air and takes flight. She is the reason to see it.