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"One of the finest character dramas ever made."
"The brilliance of Eastwood is that virtually all of the characterizations come across naturally, appearing almost effortless and easy."
"One of those films that will catch you off guard and absorb you."
Million Dollar Baby  

Cast

Frankie Dunn: Clint Eastwood
Maggie Fitzgerald: Hilary Swank
Scrap: Morgan Freeman
Review January 2005

"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 centers on the world of boxing, it's really the welfare of its characters that takes center stage - issues involving friendship, love and devotion, faith, and paternal instincts. Slow and methodical, the film is filled with deep philosophical meaning, compassionate and honest reflection, and raw emotion. Directed by the legendary Clint Eastwood, "Million Dollar Baby" is nothing less than a masterful 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 and managed some of boxing's most successful fighters. But lately, things have been not been the same. Although he tells his boxers that they must always protect themselves in the ring, it's his own need to protect them that drives them away. One after the next, his fighters leave for bigger and better opportunities. Yet, 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. After spending days and nights in the gym until completely exhausted, Maggie finally gets up the courage to ask for Frankie's help. But instead of help, Frankie gives her some cold-hearted facts, reluctant to take on the responsibility of a female boxer. Unruffled, Maggie continues to work out, eventually winning Frankie's favor 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. Ultimately, this friendship is put to the test, a test that pushes the boundaries of faith, hope, love, and dreams.

"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. And how could I forget? It's the 10th score or set of songs he has written exclusively for a film. You see, Clint Eastwood can do it all. Although known predominantly for his stoic roles in westerns like "A Fistful of Dollars," "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly," and "Pale Rider," it was his unforgettable turn as Dirty Harry that solidified his star status. And now, it's his foray into directing that has solidified his legendary status. Films like "Bird," "Unforgiven" and "Mystic River" have demonstrated a filmmaking technique aligned with his acting technique - full of restraint and nuance. And in "Million Dollar Baby," this no-nonsense style is a perfect match, building earthy and agreeable characters, allowing them to breathe and engage audiences, and then dropping them into a complex personal dilemma to see how they react and respond. Keep in mind, it's not just the main characters that evolve, but the supporting ones as well - Father Horvak, Big Willie, even Danger Barch. And 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). Frankie's been attending mass daily for 23 years, trying to come to terms with his estranged daughter, and unwilling to open up to anyone. And then along comes Maggie, who forces him to look at life differently. Yet what makes the story so real is its careful use of words. Beneath the shadows, Haggis applies just the right amount of straightforwardness, humor, and sentiment. The bluntness of Scrap's introduction: "She grew up knowing one thing. She was trash." Or Maggie's perception of Frankie's grief: "Trouble in my family comes by the pound." This is the type of dialogue that gives characters depth with very few words. And it's the type that complements Eastwood's style - subtle, dynamic, and unforgettable.

Unflinching truth. That's how I would describe each of the performances in the film. For, to watch Clint Eastwood is to watch a grizzled veteran who speaks with such unadulterated power and poise that you feel compelled to listen. Eastwood's Dunn is searching aimlessly for redemption, unable to recover from the disconnect 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 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.

Says Father Horvak to Frankie: "If you do this thing, you'll be lost, somewhere so deep you will never find yourself." It's a bleak thought, made even more bleak by the restriction of light in the scene. But yet, it was intended that way. Under the guidance of cinematographer Tom Stern and Academy award winning production designer Henry Bumstead, "Million Dollar Baby" carefully moves in and out of shadows, manipulating lights and darks in extraordinary fashion. Just look at the way Scrap and Frankie work with Maggie at night, the way the lighting reveals and hides emotions on the way home from Missouri, and the foreshadowing of a long, dark hospital hallway. Much like Maggie aspires to be a championship boxer, this film yearns for black and white. And when you combine those effects with a rugged production design, a time worn warehouse turned gym or Frankie's rustic old home, the aesthetic result has a near timeless quality.

"Million Dollar Baby" is one of those films that will catch you off guard and absorb you. What starts out as a typical 'triumph of the spirit' takes an unprecedented turn, one that delves into the heart of darkness only to surface with hope and possibility. It's a powerful touch, one that requires bold screenwriting, one that empowers an ensemble cast to dig into character, and one that showcases the visionary style of a particular 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 somber, 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)."



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