Million Dollar Baby
Production Company: Warner Bros./Lakeshore Entertainment
Director: Clint Eastwood
Principals: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman
Rating: PG-13 (for brutal fight scenes and language)
By Gregg Tubbs
(UMCom)—“It’s not how hard you hit, it’s how well you hit,” says Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) in the stunning new drama, Million Dollar Baby. So well does Baby hit that its blows land directly on the heart and reverberate in the soul. Director and star Eastwood has followed last year’s acclaimed Mystic River with a film that runs even deeper and haunts even longer. And he does it, improbably, in the world of women’s boxing.
|Hilary Swank plays Maggie Fitzgerald, a hard-scrabble Missouri girl in Clint Eastwood-directed Million Dollar Baby. Copyright © 2004 Warner Bros.|
Million Dollar Baby introduces us to the fringe-dwellers of the boxing world, in a dingy Los Angeles gym called The Hit Pit. Here, we meet the up-and-comers, the has-beens, and the never-will-be’s who cling to their dreams of glory, while straining for nuggets of wisdom from gym-owner, former “cut man” and manager Dunn.
In boxing, a “cut man” works ringside to tend cuts and repair the damage done in the ring. Unfortunately, Dunn is unable to undo the damage done in his own life. He’s estranged from his only daughter, bickers with his priest and loses his best fighters to more daring managers. His only friend is Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman) a broken-down ex-fighter who lost an eye while Dunn was his cut man. As Dunn, Eastwood gives the performance of his career, combining his well-worn arsenal of small, tightly coiled expressions into a portrait of a man whose life has left him so worn and wary that his golden rule is “always protect yourself.”
Into this world arrives Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a hard-scrabble Missouri girl who, according to Scrap’s narration, “grew up knowing only one thing, that she was trash.” She sees boxing as a last chance to escape her impoverished upbringing and low expectations. And she sees Dunn as the man who can turn her into a champion. Dunn is hesitant to take on a girl fighter, but after some cagey persuasion from Scrap, he agrees to be her coach, and the three begin a journey that will take them to the top, and towards a bond that can only be described as “family.”
If all of this sounds like the stuff of a clichéd Rocky rip-off, guess again. This film bobs and weaves adroitly, using its clichéd ingredients to lull you into a false sense of security. Then, about two-thirds of the way into the film, it whips around unexpectedly and delivers a devastating knockout punch. In the process, it lifts itself from mere entertainment to greatness. I won’t reveal what happens, because that would rob the story of its power. But Million Dollar Baby steadily takes you into some desperate and dark places, before arriving at another place, too melancholy to be called a happy ending, but not too far from a kind of redemption.
|Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) is hesitant to take on a girl fighter, Hilary Swank, but after some persuasion, he agrees. Copyright © 2004 Warner Bros.|
Eastwood’s art is deftly disguised in austere minimalism, stripping his directorial style down to the bone, until there’s nothing left to distract from the two pure essentials of character and story. The result is a film that takes it’s time in letting us get to know these characters, learn to love them, and finally, when they suffer, we suffer too, because they’ve become like family. When this makeshift family’s love is tragically tested, we are forced to confront some hard choices, for which there are no easy answers. Christians, just like Dunn’s priest, may be at odds with some of the decisions that are made, but in the end, the uncommon humanity and emotional honesty of this story make it deeply rewarding. It’s messy, exhilarating, sad and unpredictable—just like life itself.
My brother once got in hot water for convincing his wife to go see The Sixth Sense, by calling it “a romance.” And now I might get in the same kind of trouble by calling Million Dollar Baby what it really is—a love story. But, I’m not alone, because Eastwood himself considers it just that. It’s not about romantic love, but the love of family—whether it’s the one you’re born with, or the one you make for yourself. It’s about what love is, and what it isn’t, how love acts, and how it completes us. Most importantly, it’s about the limits of love—where do you draw the line between protecting yourself, and protecting the ones you love, and what do you do when life throws you such a curve, that there are no longer any lines visible at all, and you must feel your way through on heart alone. For taking us there, this baby is one in a million.
|Frankie Dunn’s only friend, Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman), is a broken-down ex-fighter who lost his eye while Dunn was his cut man. Copyright © 2004 Warner Bros.|
Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Md.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church.