‘Million Dollar Baby’ is a priceless film

Jason C. LeRoy

“It’s OK, Hilary. You can thank me for getting your second Oscar nomination later.” Clint Eastwood Hilary Swank star in Million Dollar Baby.

Credit: Beth Rankin

For the second year running, the aging-like-wine Clint Eastwood has crafted a true masterpiece and one of the best films of the year.

In Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood plays Frankie Dunn. Frankie is an old bastard who runs a stripped-down gym in Los Angeles called The Hit Pit, the look and clientele of which are eerily similar to Vince Vaughn’s gym in Dodgeball. One almost expects Ben Stiller to come busting in trying to buy the place.

Frankie’s primary vocation is training boxers, and he has had plenty of success: His current student has a shot at getting the world title. The catch, though, is that Frankie is far too cautious to manage His boxers; he can only train them. He is unwilling to take risks and tells his boxers that above all else, they must protect themselves.

But for all of Frankie’s success, he is also perennially surrounded by losers, strays and underdogs. They are drawn to him, intuitively sensing the softness beneath his weathered demeanor.

Chief among the underdogs is Scrap (Morgan Freeman), a former boxer who became Frankie’s right-hand man and the gym’s caretaker after he went blind in one eye during a fight 30 years ago. Eastwood and Freeman have a delightful chemistry, and their banter sequences play like CodgerFest 2005, their gravelly voices meshing to form one collective rasp.

But the chemistry in The Hit Pit changes with the arrival of Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a 31-year-old woman from the Ozarks who is waitressing to make money while she pursues her dream of becoming the woman’s boxing champion of the world. Freeman’s narration tells us that Maggie only knew one thing for sure, which is that she was trash. She has the exuberant recklessness of a person who knows she has nothing to lose+ and is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve her dream.

Frankie resists Maggie for a very long time out of sheer prejudice, but he eventually gives in and decides to train her. They begin to sense a similar spirit in each other. For instance, each comes from strained family situations. Frankie’s daughter sends back his letters unopened every week, and Maggie’s stunningly trashy family (painted with a fair bit of comic hostility by Eastwood) ridicules her for boxing but tries to pump as much money out of her as possible. But similarly, neither Frankie nor Maggie is willing to give up.

What follows is essentially a love story of the familial variety (not, thank Christ, a romance), with Frankie and Maggie slowly and cautiously moving into a father-daughter relationship.

As Eastwood is quick to point out, this is not a boxing story. This becomes abundantly clear during the film’s final act, which is not hinted at in the trailers; this is one movie that is actually not mapped out play-by-play in the previews. And while the film certainly does become a bona fide tearjerker (the woman next to me at the preview screening was practically in hysterics), it does so in a surprising, honest and heartfelt manner.

As Frankie, Eastwood turns in possibly the finest performance of his career. Frankie is craving forgiveness for a sin involving his daughter that the audience is never clued in on, and his unceasing search for absolution is palpable. While he does not physically box anymore, his emotional self-protection is just as combative, which is why he resists Maggie. This is also a physically honest performance; Eastwood makes no attempt to mask how time has transformed his once-lean body into a mound of sags and haunches.

Hilary Swank, who appeared to have succumbed to the Oscar curse of failure following her legendary role in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, has already taken some flack for playing yet another “masculine” woman in this film, but I say nuts to that. The only thing “masculine” about Maggie is the fact that she’s a boxer. If anything, Swank makes a concerted effort to keep the character sweet and charming as opposed to gruff and edgy.

This doesn’t always pay off. At times, Maggie comes off somewhat like a plaster saint, just too good to be true. Similar to Swank’s portrayal of Brandon Teena, Maggie is a bright-eyed underdog bursting with energy and excitement at the prospect of living out her innermost dream. While my vote for Best Actress would sooner go to Uma Thurman (Kill Bill), Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) or Laura Dern (We Don’t Live Here Anymore), this is still a great and moving performance.

Million Dollar Baby is a haunting meditation on meaning and mortality. This is a film shaded in blues and blacks, just like its characters, bruised from the hardships of life and family. While the film occasionally shades its sentimentality a little too deeply, for the most part it takes the clich‚s, which are its foundation, and invests them with heart and soul, transforming them into the vibrant stuff of life.

Contact pop arts reporter Jason C. LeRoy at [email protected].