What a Renaissance Clint Eastwood is having! Million Dollar Baby easily could have been a schlocky, cable-grade boxing drama. Instead, it is a deeply engrossing and elegant melodrama of character. Million Dollar Baby is sort of like the best made-for-TV movie of all time—and I mean that as a compliment.
Million Dollar Baby opens with Frankie Dunn (Eastwood). Dunn owns a gym, goes to church compulsively, reads Yeats, and manages a heavyweight contender. He also sends letters to his daughter that are always sent back to him unopened. Grizzled and frozen, Dunn has been hurt into timidity.
When his prize-fighter leaves him for a more aggressive manager, Dunn is left with only his gym and his best friend, the one-eyed Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris (Morgan Freeman). Enter Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank). Thirty-one-year-old Maggie grew up, as Eddie puts it, “knowing only one thing—that she was trash.” Maggie has one dream—to be a boxer. And she trains day and night in Frankie’s gym until he begrudgingly agrees to train her. Soon she is climbing the ranks in female boxing, while she and Frankie develop a deep, yet platonic relationship.
It’s a simple story, but what makes it so rich is Eastwood’s attention to his characters. He adds wonderful nuance with simply a passing phrase or look. We believe in Eddie, Frankie, and Maggie, and this elevates the movie above its melodramatic plot.
Eastwood has also become quite a showman. The boxing scenes are visceral and striking, and Eastwood renders L.A. into an endless swatch of shadows and concrete. The score (composed by Eastwood) is also accomplished and moody, as is the editing and nearly continuous narration by the gold-throated Freeman.
Eastwood’s Dunn is gruff and tender, but deeply believable as a man with serious history. Freeman (as always) is also excellent as the warm, calming center of the film. Best of all is Hillary Swank, who so completely inhabits her character you often forget the celebrity behind it.
Million Dollar Baby may not have the emotional heft of Mystic River or Unforgiven, or the nifty flashiness of The Outlaw Josey Wales and Play Misty For Me. Nonetheless, it is a superb addition to the Eastwood canon.