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Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

Clint Eastwood has portrayed characters in many excellent movies ranging from A Fistful of Dollars (1964) – a violent “spaghetti” Western – to Paint Your Wagon (1969) – a musical (but still a Western). From Dirty Harry (1971) to The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) Eastwood's roles pack a punch and usually carry a message appealing to those who focus on individuals and their status in society.

As a director Eastwood's films vary from Play Misty for Me (1971): one of his first – a psychological thriller, to Absolute Power (1997): done more recently – a suspenseful political crime drama. In 2004 he won the Best Director Oscar for Million Dollar Baby. He has also produced many fine movies and composed music for film as well. As its producer he won the 2004 Best Picture Oscar for Million Dollar Baby (2004) and filled all the roles mentioned: actor, director, producer and musical composer. This film, like many of his movies, deals with controversial issues.

Morgan Freeman joins Eastwood giving narration for the story as he did in The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Freeman delivers an outstanding portrayal, winning the 2004 Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role. In that company Hilary Swank may seem like a relative newcomer, but she won the 2004 Best Actress Oscar for her role in this film. However, she had won the 2000 Best Actress Oscar for another very controversial role in Boys Don't Cry That's enough praise for the main participants for now, on to the basics of the storyline.

The movie opens showing a boxing match in which two men pound each other while hundreds of noisy fans watch. Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) manages one of the fighters: Big Willie Little (Mike Colter). While Frankie stops Willie's bleeding between fight rounds, Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman) as narrator gives some back story on Dunn, who has been around the fight game for a long time. In their corner a boxing official looks at Big Willie's barely staunched facial cuts and tells them they have one more round. During that round a new spectator arrives: Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank). She watches the fight from an exit of the arena.

As “Scrap-Iron,” or Scrap for short, offers an insider's view of the nature of boxing, Big Willie turns the match around and knocks down his opponent, who stays down for the count. When Frankie leaves for his car Maggie speaks with him about her match fought on the “undercard” in the Arena that evening. She won her fight and tells Frankie she did well. She asks Frankie if he saw. He didn't. She says “I thought you might be interested in training me.” He replies: “I don't train girls.” Joining Willie in the car, Frankie tells him he turned down a title match. He says, “Two or three more fights, you'll be ready.”

Frankie also practices religion in his own way and banters with his priest Father Horvak (Brian O'Byrne) after church. Frankie trains boxers at the “Hit Pit Gym.” As the camera pans around the gym Scrap gives background on it and a few other minor characters there along with the “all heart” boxer: Danger Barch (Jay Baruchel). When Frankie arrives, Scrap points out Maggie working on the equipment. Frankie talks to her again telling her he doesn't train girls. Maggie, who has paid gym fees six months in advance, perseveres; hitting the bag, while Scrap gives her back story. Later when he closes the gym Scrap speaks with Maggie about improving her boxing style.

As narrator Scrap says “If there's magic in boxing, it's the magic of fighting battles beyond endurance, beyond cracked ribs, ruptured kidneys and detached retinas. It's the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you.” In that way boxing perhaps acts as a microcosm of life itself.

When Frankie visits Scrap late one night at the gym, he discovers Maggie training on her birthday. He goes over to give her another talk about why she shouldn't be fighting, beginning with asking her age now. She says “I'm 32, Mr. Dunn, and I'm here celebrating the fact that I spent another year scraping dishes and waitressing which is what I've been doing since 13, and according to you I'll be 37 before I can even throw a decent punch, which after working this speed bag for a month ... I now realize [that] may be the God's simple truth. ... Problem is, this the only thing I ever felt good doing. If I'm too old for this then I got nothing.” When Frankie offers to find her another trainer, she refuses, saying “I know if you train me right I'm going to be a champ ... I want a trainer. I don't want charity and I don't want favors.” Frankie makes a deal with Maggie saying he'll teach her how to fight, but he attempts to avoid emotional entanglement. In that, eventually, he fails.

This is a truly great movie, perhaps the best Eastwood has yet made. Hilary Swank is positively magnificent as Maggie and Morgan Freeman also shines as Scrap, but I've already listed their awards above. Boxing often provides the setting for great movies like this one, e.g. Rocky, Golden Boy and The Great White Hope, to name just a few. This film's emphasis on several issues make it especially relevant to individualists: the will to be a champion, the ultimate meaning of self-ownership, the challenge which occasionally comes with friendship and the real meaning of family. Although many might not agree with Maggie's decision, focusing on that misses a greater point: that decision belongs to her and her alone. That rationale also applies to Frankie in his dilemma. Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may have had different reasons for their awards than the ones I listed above, I think in this case they chose a fine film. I unreservedly give Million Dollar Baby my highest recommendation.

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