Clint Eastwood as Frankie Dunn
Hilary Swank as Maggie Fitzgerald
Morgan Freeman as Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris
Jay Baruchel as Danger Barch
Mike Colter as Big Willie Little
Lucia Rijker as Billie ‘The Blue Bear’
Brian F. O’Byrne as Father Horvak
Anthony Mackie as Shawrelle Berry
Margo Martindale as Earline Fitzgerald
Riki Lindhome as Mardell Fitzgerald
Eastwood’s decision to direct a drama set in the world of boxing may not be too surprising, but there’s more to this boxing film than round after round of ring bouts. Certainly, boxing fans will appreciate the way Eastwood films the boxing action, but the story is more about the developing relationship between Frankie and Maggie during her rise to stardom in the ring.
The film opens with a boxing match by Frankie’s main fighter, after which Frankie first meets and refuses to be Maggie’s trainer. The majority of the story unfolds back at Frankie’s gym, where we learn a bit more about Frankie. We never learn whether he’s divorced or a widower, but he’s a devout Catholic who makes daily visits to the church where the priest gives him a hard time about not having talked to his daughter in years. His best friend is Eddie, the gym custodian played by Morgan Freeman, whose boxing career ended in a debilitating fight, but remained loyal to Eastwood who had saved him from losing an eye. Before Maggie reenters the picture, a needless subplot involving a dim wannabe fighter and the gym’s hotheaded show-off-another small but great role for actor Anthony Mackie-is introduced, which will later help to show Eddie’s strength of character.
Instead of being the typical sports rags-to-riches, Million Dollar Baby is a very touching story of a man whose estranged daughter is replaced by a young woman who immediately accepts him as a replacement for her own father. As Frankie, Eastwood is his normally gruff self, never veering that far away from his previous role. By the end, you never learn what happened to Frankie’s daughter or why they hadn’t talked in years, but it all adds to the mystery of the character. Morgan Freeman gives a strong but subdued performance with a dry voice-over narrative that fills in the story’s gaps.
Not to take anything away from these two acting veterans, but the film clearly belongs to Hillary Swank, who finally lives up to the promise of her breakout role in Boys Don’t Cry with another Oscar-worthy performance. Maggie is a thirty-two year old woman who has escaped her white trash roots in Missouri to wait tables and scrape together enough money to train under Frankie. The age of her character is a bit surprising, since you might expect a younger woman to be breaking into the spot, but she has a fascinating character arc, going from the bubbly enthusiasm that hides a dark past to forming a true bond with Frankie as she proves herself in the ring. This aspect of Swank’s performance is particularly impressive, as she got into amazing physical shape to take on the athletic role; it looks like she even did most of the ring work in the boxing scenes. The scenes with her mother, a hateful woman who clearly doesn’t support her anything about her daughter’s life, only intensifies the depth of her character.
Although the pacing of the movie is slow even compared to Mystic River, Paul Haggis’ tight scripting insures that it’s the kind of dialogue-driven film that flows well. None of the film’s slow build-up quite prepares you for the film’s powerful third act, following an unexpected twist that makes the film an even more dramatic and heartfelt experience.
This doesn’t mean that the film isn’t visually interesting, as Eastwood’s use of older filmmaking techniques makes it seem like a movie straight out of the ’60s or ’70s, while the creative use of lighting and the camerawork helps give it a very distinctive mood. The film never seems dated, though, thanks to the subject matter of women’s boxing that keeps it firmly set in the modern day. Those action-packed boxing scenes are also shot so inventively that it makes them look better than many of the previous boxing dramas.
Any doubt that Eastwood ranks among America’s finest filmmakers should forever be dispelled thanks to this unexpectedly brilliant masterpiece.