Million Dollar Baby is not about boxing. It is an engaging film about relationships and responsibilities among characters whose lives intersect in the world of boxing. While it begins with familiar motifs from boxing films, the story veers off and becomes a serious drama about moral issues.
Clint plays Frankie Dunn, a cut man and boxing manager for many years. His great skills in the corner are evident in the opening moments of the film when he tells his man to take a punch, allowing the opponent’s punches to close up a wound that is bleeding badly.
Frankie’s hottest prospect, Big Willie Little, has been itching for a shot at the title but Frankie tells him he’ll ” be ready in two years,” which is what he told him two years ago. Frankie’s reluctance stems from the guilt he carries when he worked the corner for a boxer who took a title fight against the wishes of his manager and sustained career-ending injuries. Big Willie Little is getting older and can’t wait any longer, so he leaves Frankie for a manager who will get him title shot.
One day into Frankie’s gym comes Maggie Fitzgerald, played by Hillary Swank. She boxes because it is the only thing that brings her solace. She moved out to Los Angeles from Missouri, but the odds are stacked against her because she isn’t very good and is in her early 30’s, which is a late age to start.
She works as a waitress and is so poor that she takes home customers’ leftovers to eat; yet she is driven to follow her dream. She wants Frankie to manage her and tells him that she is tough, but Frankie tells her, “Girlie, tough ain’t enough.” However, since she has paid six months in advance, he allows her stay at the gym because his financial situation isn’t much better.
Former boxer Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris, played by Morgan Freeman, runs Frankie’s boxing gym, The Hit Pit, and is a close friend of Frankie’s. When he sees Maggie’s determination, he assists her, which Frankie isn’t thrilled about. Eventually, that same determination makes a believer out of Frankie and he gives in to her wishes to coach and manage her.
They form a father-daughter bond that both are in need of since neither one has any family to speak of. Frankie’s daughter’s returns every letter he sends unopened and Maggie’s family are a pathetic mess of white trash who only want her to send money home.
Maggie works her way up through the ranks with her amazing punching power. She refuses to leave Frankie when she’s ready for the big time and he gets her a title shot. The climax of that fight is the end of Act Two and those results set up the moral dilemmas that change Million Dollar Baby from sports film to serious drama.
I thought the film was good not great. It is a well-crafted film with the usual outstanding acting from Swank and Freeman, who were both awarded with Oscars by the Motion Picture Academy, but the real surprise is that Eastwood delivers the most wide-ranging emotional performance of his career and does so as the film’s director.
While I enjoyed Freeman’s performance, rising to his usual level of brilliance, I had some problems with his character. He is both a character in the story and the omniscient narrator. It makes sense for him to tell the tale up to a point, but it fell apart when he appeared during the climax. It took me out of the moment as I tried to understand which version of Scrap I was seeing. His presence could have ruined the events, but was he really there? I lost some of the emotional impact of the scene.
The boxing in the film was nothing special, which seems to be an accurate portrayal of the level of these up-and-coming fighters. Plus, the fights don’t go too long because Maggie ends most of her fights early by way of knockouts. I had a hard time with the final fight because Maggie goes up against the dirtiest fighter around, Billie “The Blue Bear”.
It was hard to believe Billie was even allowed to box. During their match, the referee becomes a referee from a wrestling match. He completely misses what’s happening when his back is turned. Billie should have been disqualified or at least penalized. I understand she is the catalyst for Act Three, but they could have created the same circumstances in a more believable way.
Even with its flaws, I enjoyed Million Dollar Baby because it got so many things right, from the acting to the wonderful cinematography to the story, the resolution of which seems to have right-wing blowhards and other special interest groups in a snit. They don’t like the film because they disagree with Frankie’s decision, and are giving away the plot twists in an attempt to ruin the film. They think that Eastwood is advocating a moral position because of what his characters does. In response Eastwood said, “Well, I’ve done a lot of shooting with .44 Magnums on the streets of San Francisco, but I wouldn’t really advocate that.”
What these dimwits fail to understand is that films, like all art, aren’t about what the observers would do, they are about what the characters would do and Frankie’s actions are completely believable in the context of the story. They obviously have no understanding of art or the cathartic function it serves. Million Dollar Baby will make you think about life and might even cause conversations between family and friends. That’s always a good thing in my book.