I’ve never been into boxing movies; mostly because I hate fighting, I hate blood, and I hate closing my eyes all during the film until the violence stops. I am happy to say Million Dollar Baby, the latest film directed by Clint Eastwood is an exception to the rule. Not only did I not close my eyes, I didn’t want to miss a single scene.
Eastwood also stars as Frankie, who owns a boxing gym in Los Angeles where he trains fighters. On the side, he reads Irish poetry and writes to his estranged daughter once a week, but the letters always comes back returned unread.
A woman named Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank) comes in, and makes a pest of herself asking him to be her coach. He refuses, saying in a gruff way: “I don’t coach girls.” The only friend Frankie has is Scrap (Morgan Freeman) one of his former fighters who lost his eye in a fight, and who now works in Frankie’s gym.
Eventually Frankie finds out more about Maggie and her background: Since she was 13, she had been a waitress, and “my mother weighs three hundred pounds, my sister collects welfare for one of her children that’s not alive, and my brother is in jail.”
When Swank says the dialog to Eastwood, there is no self-pity, no sorrow. Her speech is matter of fact and strong, that nothing is going to stand in her way. Boxing is the only way she sees her way out of the life she has lived, it is her one dream. After Scrap encourages Frankie to give her a chance, Frankie starts to train Maggie and then eventually becomes her manager.
Maggie starts to gain a reputation as a good fighter, and moves up in stature and becomes better and better at her chosen sport. But she has to face down several challenges that come in her way. And Frankie has to help her face those challenges, and to be there for her when she will needs him the most.
Million Dollar Baby works because the people are real and wonderfully portrayed. Morgan Freeman as Scrap shows a man who, as the narrator of the film, tells the story of Maggie and Frankie in a sensitive way. His voice is always quiet, matter of fact. He simply tells the story of the two people he knew, and lets the viewer feel the emotion as the scenes are played out.
Eastwood’s Frankie is a man of depth and sorrow; sorrow over his lost daughter, fighters that have left him, of chances that have not turned out in his life. While Maggie succeeds and he is happy for her, the sorrow doesn’t completely leave Frankie. Eastwood pulls this off with quiet dignity.
But it is Hillary Swank that is a knockout punch in her role of Maggie. Delivering her best performance since her Oscar winning portrayal in Boys Don’t Cry, Maggie is a person you want to root for and want her to succeed.
She is not only fighting in the ring, but fighting in the world to have a better life. In one of the best scenes of the film, Maggie and Frankie go to visit Maggie’s mother (Margo Martindale). During the scene while her mother belittles her daughter after a surprise that doesn’t go well, Maggie doesn’t talk much. Instead Swank uses her eyes to do the talking for her. Big and wide, her eyes tear up but can’t quite cry, she is used to the verbal abuse, yet it still stings.
Million Dollar Baby is not only about boxing, but it is about how people connect after getting knocked around by life, and how they help each other stand up and get back on their feet. It’s a knockout of a movie.