Million Dollar Baby is not just the finest film of 2004 – it’s one of the finest character dramas ever made. Based on the stories from F.X. Toole’s Rope Burns, Million Dollar Baby tells the story of three fascinating characters: Frankie Dunn, a boxing trainer who has spent a lifetime in the ring but is gradually losing his touch; Eddie "Scrap Iron" Dupris, a former heavyweight who looks after Frankie and his gym; and Maggie Fitzgerald, an ambitious female boxer who desperately wants someone to believe in her. Although the film centres on the world of boxing, it’s really the welfare of its characters that takes centre stage – issues involving friendship, love and devotion, faith, and paternal instincts. Slow and methodical, the film is filled with deep meaning, honest reflection, and raw emotion. Directed by the legendary Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby is nothing less than a triumph.
The sign in his office reads loud and clear: "Tough ain’t Enough." It’s a motto that Frankie Dunn has been living by his entire life. As the owner of a small gym in Los Angeles called The Hit Pit, Frankie has trained some of boxing’s most successful fighters, but one by one they’ve all left for bigger and better opportunities. Even more painful than losing his edge, Frankie has lost contact with his daughter over the years, writing letters only to have them returned to sender. Frustrated and lonely, Frankie turns to his faith for some form of forgiveness, but after 23 years, it continues to elude him. In the meantime, he puts up his own defenses, unwilling to let anyone close to him. Even his best friend, Scrap, a former boxer who looks after the gym, is kept at a distance.
All of that changes, of course, with the arrival of Maggie Fitzgerald, a 32 year old with raw talent and nothing to lose. Maggie finds joy and purpose in boxing, even though she is untrained and too old for a boxing career. More importantly, she just wants someone to believe in her and boxing provides an escape from the grueling hours as a waitress. Frankie is initially reluctant to take on the responsibility of a female boxer, but Maggie eventually wins his favour through heart and determination, and in between fights, the two form an inseparable bond of friendship and family that helps the other forget the pains of the past.
Million Dollar Baby marks the 25th film Clint Eastwood has directed, the 57th film in which he has acted, and the 21st film he has produced. Although known predominantly for his stoic roles in westerns, it was his unforgettable turn as Dirty Harry that solidified his star status. And now, his foray into directing has solidified his status as a cinematic legend. His technique as a director is full of restraint and nuance, much like his acting, and in Million Dollar Baby, this no-nonsense style is a perfect match for the story. The brilliance of Eastwood is that virtually all of the characterizations come across naturally, appearing almost effortless and easy.
The film was inspired by a collection of short stories from long-time manager and cutman (one who patches up injuries), Jerry Boyd, who under the pen name of F.X. Toole, captured life in the ring with gritty and remarkable detail. Yet while Boyd’s piece is quintessential to the boxing details, Paul Haggis’ script shies away from the sport to focus more on relationships; in particular, the relationship between a father (Frankie) and a surrogate daughter (Maggie).
Eastwood’s Dunn is searching aimlessly for redemption, unable to recover from the disconnection with his daughter, and his world crumbles as a result of his overprotectiveness. But it’s his transformation that is key – his stubborn refusal to change, his bitterness and vindictiveness – all change when his paternal instincts kick in and he is left with only his faith. Then there’s Hilary Swank, whose character literally has ‘nothing’ but a dream of becoming a champion boxer. To give that up, "I might as well go back home and buy a used trailer and get a deep fryer and some Oreos." Swank is Academy worthy, showing heart and soul in a role that would otherwise be static. In particular, it’s her ability to mix blind enthusiasm with blunt realism that gives her character complexity, elevating her beyond stereotypical trailer trash. Narrating the story is Morgan Freeman as Scrap, who as always brings an element of dignity and elegance to an otherwise ordinary role.
"Million Dollar Baby" is one of those films that catches you off guard. What starts out as a typical ‘triumph of the spirit’ takes an unprecedented turn, delving into the heart of darkness only to surface with hope and possibility. It’s a powerful touch, one that requires bold screenwriting, a gifted ensemble cast, and the visionary style of a director who seems to get better with age. Yes, boxing provides the backdrop, but it’s really the character drama or relationships that stay in the forefront. Moody, reflective, and sombre, you may find it hard to shake these famous words: "We live in the flicker…may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling (Joseph Conrad)."