The great Muhammad Ali was so quick and so elusive he "fought" the first round of his championship bout against Sonny Liston without throwing a punch, without, in fact, lifting his gloves above his waist. He simply moved, defying Liston's attempts to hit him. At his best, Ali elevated his brutal sport into an art form. George Foreman in contrast, whom Ali fought in the epic "Rumble in the Jungle," was a human pile driver who punched with such devastating power that his world championship uppercut actually lifted Joe Frazier off his feet. Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby is a George Foreman of a movie. It is strong in neither finesse nor subtlety, but it jabs you relentlessly and finally knocks you flat.
Written for the screen by Paul Haggis, Million Dollar Baby is the story of the unlikely relationship between an aging fight trainer and a woman determined to become a boxer. Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) has been involved in boxing all his life. He's almost a magician at dealing with bloody noses and cuts over eye sockets and cheekbones. Semi-retired, it seems, he owns a crusty old gym which is mostly run by his friend Eddie "Scrap" Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a one-eyed former boxer Frankie trained four decades ago. Frankie's only fighter at the moment is Willie Little (Mike Colter), a contender growing frustrated with Frankie's cautious strategy about arranging matches. Frankie's caution arises from his fundamental decency; he would like to win championships, but he wants to protect his fighters from injury even more.
A critical test of Frankie's paradoxical life in boxing arises when Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) asks him to train her. A waitress from an impoverished home, Maggie sees boxing (as boxers typically have) as her only chance to rise above her circumstances. But at nearly 32, she's presumably too old to learn the skills she would need to succeed. Frankie doesn't want to train her because he doesn't want to encourage her to pursue a path that will lead her nowhere. But her determination and her toughness win him over. And Million Dollar Baby swings into a long middle section that seems like most sports films ever made.
But in the end, Million Dollar Baby isn't really a sports film at all; it's a relationship picture. It's the story of Frankie's gruff but caring relationship with Scrap. And it's the story of the fierce bond that develops between Frankie and Maggie as he trains her. Simply put and without ever employing the terms, Frankie and Maggie come to love each other like father and daughter. Frankie is estranged from his own daughter, and Maggie's father, whom she loved, is dead. The narrative in the film includes the expected scenes of punishing workouts inter-cut with Maggie's increasing prowess inside the ropes, a staccato montage of knockout punches and gloves raised in triumph on the march toward that championship bout. But the climactic fight isn't the film's destination; it's only a station along the way.
It is regrettable that Haggis' script is so routinely clumsy and heavy-handed, even lazy. We never understand Frankie's financial situation. From the looks of his gym and his car, he would seem almost as destitute as Maggie. Yet, as Maggie's career begins its inevitable flourish, he seems a man of almost unlimited means. The picture doesn't handle Frankie's private life satisfactorily, either. His estrangement from his daughter weighs on him so heavily he goes to Mass every day, even though he seems a religious skeptic. We haven't a clue what he might have done, and almost anything that would cause him the guilt he exhibits would seem inconsistent with his character. Comparable gaps are left in Maggie's biography. She says she's been on her own since her early teens. Aside from waiting tables, what's she been doing? Has she ever had a romance or even a friend? What has led her now to boxing?
Two other developments also prove annoying. Maggie's family members are almost laughably villainous. There isn't even a remote instance of complication in their trashiness and ultimate greed. And then there's the critical business of dirty fighting. Anyone familiar with boxing knows about eye-thumbing, head-butting, low blows and even Mike Tyson's notorious ear-biting. But the dirty fighting in this movie lacks all credibility, and that's a flaw that could ruin a picture lacking this one's strengths. Those strengths include the film's magnificent performances. Eastwood calls upon all his legendary toughness and then turns it inside out to show us the cost in terms of yearning for connection. Swank is utterly convincing as at once ferocious enough to knock someone out and girlish enough to leap giggling into her mentor's arms. Conclusively, we believe that Frankie and Maggie are each saved by their love for each other. In the end, when he tells her the meaning of a Gaelic nickname he's given her, I defy you not to weep.
- Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) is in the corner of aspiring boxer Maggie Fitzgerald (Golden Globe winner Hilary Swank) in Eastwood's latest, Million Dollar Baby.