A good sports movie gives the audience the exhilarating feeling of being part of something big and exciting. Director Clint Eastwood doesn’t abandon that feeling in his new boxing movie, nor does he eschew boxing movie protocol. There’s still the story of the poor kid who trains hard and comes out of nowhere to win it all. And Eastwood dutifully brings us ringside for a mat-level view, letting us feel every bone-crushing fist that slams into the heroine, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank).
But the film hits even harder outside the ring, where the story becomes a more relevant tale of lost people finding each other. And, even better, Eastwood leaves us feeling as if we were part of something very big, but also very true.
The story begins with the expected inspirational, against-all-odds melodrama. Maggie, a broke woman who is short on skills but dreams big, convinces salty manager Frankie Dunn (played by Eastwood) to take her on, even though he doesn’t like the idea of women boxing and thinks that, at 30, she’s too old to train. As one would guess, Maggie quickly cuts down the competition and rises to an elite level.
But Maggie and Frankie are both haunted and abandoned. She has an unsupportive, manipulative family back in the sticks with an unfathomable capacity for selfishness. Frankie can’t shake the demons from some unrevealed action that led his daughter and wife to cut him out of their lives. He wants redemption. She wants salvation. They have no one but each other.
Just as they figure this out, and just as Maggie gets her biggest break, the movie takes an abrupt, dark turn, which, in less capable hands, might have spoiled the entire effort. But Eastwood proves again he’s a master storyteller, showing great restraint throughout the film but especially at the turning points. He never exploits his characters, keeping the emotions authentic and tempered.
It doesn’t hurt that Eastwood’s actors are at their best. Save for Swank’s chiseled physique, which must have cost her a lifetime at the gym, there is an effortlessness to the performances that makes this film rise above its boxing movie clichés.
Swank proves again she’s worthy of the Oscar statuette. At times her character oozes with eagerness, but the actress makes it obvious that Maggie’s made of tougher stuff than her enthusiasm suggests.
Morgan Freeman nearly upstages everyone as Frankie’s friend and the film’s witty and wise narrator, Eddie “Scrap” Dupris. A former prizefighter who now runs Frankie’s ramshackle gym, Eddie is a devil’s advocate extraordinaire, nudging Maggie and Frankie toward each other with gentle jabs of guilt and manipulation.
The chemistry between Freeman and Eastwood is one of the film’s unexpected delights. Watching the two peck at each other is like watching two prizefighters spar — it looks so spontaneous yet somehow perfectly orchestrated.
Yes, Million Dollar Baby is about the grit and glory of boxing. It’s about the count, the bell and the gloves in the air, but also about the human heart and all the tenderness and strength it can muster. And in both corners, it’s a knockout.
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].