Clint Eastwood explores of the tragic side of human existence in "Million Dollar Baby," a film that enters
a murky area of the soul where a man can hide out from his God even as he seeks His mercy. On the surface, the film is a simple
boxing story about a hellcat from the Ozarks and the grizzled Irish Catholic trainer who takes her on. Under Eastwood's painstakingly
stripped-down direction -- his filmmaking has become the cinematic equivalent of Hemingway's spare though precise prose --
the story emerges as that rarest of birds, an uplifting tragedy.
"Million Dollar Baby" may appeal to a narrower range
of moviegoers than the usual Eastwood film. The film lacks the propulsive energy of "Mystic River,"
which, after all, was a crime tale, and the story rarely leaves the gym or boxing ring. While the film should achieve above-average
results in urban markets, critical reaction and possible Oscar nominations may add substantially to the box-office.
Haggis' screenplay is drawn from a story in "Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner," a collection of short stories based on
the experiences of longtime cutman and fight manager Jerry Boyd, writing at age 70 under the pen name of F.X. Toole. What
one must get used to is a writing style that favors stereotypes and familiar plots. It is the force of the personality Eastwood,
Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman bring to these gym rats that causes them to emerge as convincing archetypes in a story of
almost mystical heroism.
Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is an emotionally closed, sour individual. Estranged from his only
daughter -- the movie never gets to the bottom of how he earned her scorn -- he holes up in his downtown L.A. gym, surrounded by fighters and Scap (Freeman), an ex-boxer who runs the place. Frankie
is not on good terms with God, either. He attends Mass nearly every day but does so mostly to argue with the exasperated priest
When Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank), an emotionally scared hillbilly, asks him to train her, his answer
is curt: At 31, she is too old, and he doesn't train "girlies." Nonetheless, she works out at his gym for a year, getting
occasional tips from Scrap, before wearing Frankie down to where he grudgingly takes her on. The rocky road taken by fighter
and trainer leads to a championship match. Here the story takes an abrupt turn into tragedy that forces the two to confront
the true meaning of love and the strange way fate can deliver redemption.
The film has few characters. Jay Baruchel
stands out as a mentally challenged man with delusions of becoming a boxer. Maggie's trailer-trash family threatens to overwhelm
the movie with cliches. Otherwise, "Million Dollar Baby" is a three-character drama.
Clearly, Maggie becomes the daughter
Frankie lacks, but theirs is a combative relationship in which they are never on the same page until the end. Similarly, Frankie
and Scrap bicker like an old married couple, yet beneath the surface is a compelling symbiosis. Frankie was cutman on Scrap's
last fight, where he lost an eye. Frankie can never forgive himself for not finding a way to stop the brutal bout, and Scrap
knows how quickly Frankie would fall apart were he to ever leave.
What happened to Scrap has made Frankie overly cautious.
He tells all his fighters to protect themselves, but what he really wants to protect is himself. Thus, he never puts his boxers
into title fights, which drives them to managers who will. When he finally does agree to a title fight, his worst fears are
The film is told in a voice-over narration by Scrap in whicah the poetry and homilies are a bit self-conscious.
Director Eastwood keeps individual scenes simple and quick, like Maggie's fights. Once he gets the emotional impact he's after,
he cuts and moves quickly on.