Million Dollar Baby Review


It was supposed to be the year of Martin Scorsese. The Aviator had all the makings of an Oscar darling—it was a biopic with great acting, direction, and technical features. But all of a sudden, at the end of December, a little film called “Million Dollar Baby” gets released and knocks just about everyone’s socks off. There’s no question to be which is the better film. “The Aviator” is competent and safe. “Million Dollar Baby” affects me emotionally in ways few other films can. It just tops “Unforgiven” and “Mystic River” as Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece. And it certainly deserved every award heaped on it back in 2004.

Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is the best cut man in boxing. He’s also owns a gym and trains boxers. But when his prize fighter abandons him just before winning the title, he’s left reeling. Enter Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank). She’s old, poor, and can’t box her way out of a paper bag, but she’s got the drive and heart of a champion. Frankie is resistant to training her at first (he doesn’t train girls), but Maggie’s persistence, as well as his friend Scrap’s (Morgan Freeman) subtle convincing, forces Frankie to have a change of heart.

Once under Frankie’s guidance, Maggie quickly rises up the female boxing ranks. She travels the world, knocking out opponents left and right. Then, she gets to fight for the world championship. Here, the film takes an unexpected turn, transforming this underdog sports story into an examination of what it really means to live.

The film is subtle. It’s made by little moments with each of the characters, such as when Maggie and Frankie go for pie, or when Scrap shares the story of his 109th fight. These moments draw us in and make us care about what happens to the characters. They make the finale all the more difficult to sit through.

The acting is fantastic. Both Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman won Oscars for their work, while Clint Eastwood received a nomination. All were deserved. Hilary Swank really owns the film, but in a simple, quiet way. She’s sweet and loyal, and we can’t help but root for her on her journey to the top. And in the final thirty minutes, she’ll break your heart over and over again. Morgan Freeman provides the film’s narration and the few moments of comic relief. He does just what a good supporting performance should do—provide support to the main characters. Eastwood is more than just a gruff trainer. He has some personal demons, and he’s capable of showing real emotion. Without these three performances, the film wouldn’t be what it is.

The film is also well-written and well-made. Paul Haggis (of “Crash” fame) wrote the film, based the novel “Rope Burns.” It’s insightful into the world of boxing, and it gives us living, breathing characters to watch and admire. The music is understated, but excellent. The cinematography is great. Event the costumes are spot on. Simple films like this rarely get noticed for their technical features, but I have always been quite taken with what “Million Dollar Baby” has to offer in these less noticeable ways.

Besides taking the Academy Awards by storm, the film made a killing at the box office, crossing the $100 million mark. Not bad for a dark, downer of a film that only cost a quarter of that amount. And I think it has stayed fresh and relevant years later. People are still taken by the film and believe, like me, that it’s one of the greatest Best Picture winners in recent memory. Since then, neither Eastwood nor Swank nor Freeman has done as good work as this, in front of or behind the camera. I don’t fault them for this, however, because this is about as good as it gets.

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