Oscar Movie Month: "Million Dollar Baby" Review

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Million Dollar Baby is a 2004 American sports drama film directed, co-produced, and scored by Clint Eastwood and starring Eastwood, Hilary Swank, and Morgan Freeman. It is the story of an under-appreciated boxing trainer, his elusive past, and his quest for atonement by helping an underdog amateur female boxer (the film's title character) achieve her dream of becoming a professional.
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Oscar Movie Month: "Million Dollar Baby" Review

-- Rating: PG-13
Length: 132 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 28, 2005
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Genre: Drama/Sport

When the audience first meets Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), she is a nameless, faceless waitress who is so poor that she resorts to wrapping up people's leftovers to take home for dinner. Frustrated with the lack of progress she has made in her thirty-one years of existence, she decides to take up boxing in order to better herself and do something about her life. She spends every extra penny of her tips to purchasing a membership to the Hit Pit, a boxing gym owned by Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood). She approaches him about training her to be a fighter, but he gruffly rebuffs her offer, saying that she is too old to begin training and that he doesn't train girls.

Maggie has nothing to lose, so she continues to train, with Frankie alternately amused and flabbergasted by her stubbornness. He has a lot of free time to observe her now that his prize boxer Big Willie Little (Mike Colter) has signed with another manager. Frankie has a reputation for being too cautious with his boxers, and this cost him Big Willie, who is almost certain to go on to get a shot at the title. The gym's custodian, Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman), takes a liking to Maggie and sees an opportunity to goad Frankie into training her now that he has nothing better to do. Exasperated with Eddie's meddling, Frankie begins giving her pointers and tips but insists he isn't training her. Finally, her charm and dedication get the best of him, and he is training her in earnest.

Maggie soon begins winning every fight she is signed up for, so much so that Frankie starts bribing other managers to let their boxers get in the ring with her. She begins to earn the respect she has longed for since childhood, and her future is looking very bright. Of course, a drama like this always has a twist, and the one in "Million Dollar Baby" is a doozy. While fighting, Maggie is the victim of a sucker punch after the bell rings, which causes her to break her neck, leaving her almost completely paralyzed. The injury changes her life forever and forces her and Frankie to make some big decisions about her future outside of the ring.

Eastwood's performance is spectacular from start to finish, but never so much as in the third act of the film, when Frankie is faced with a moral quandary that no man should ever have to face. He has to decide whether to help Maggie by assisting her suicide or watching her spend the rest of her life confined to a bed because the only body part she can move is her head. Over the months he spent training her, Frankie got to know Maggie well enough to realize that she got into boxing because she felt her life as a waitress wasn't worth living. He knows that in her head, her current and future life filled with bedpans and sponge baths isn't worth living. Eastwood's face is the very definition of pain in these scenes, as Frankie wrestles with a gut-wrenching decision about Maggie's life. With this performance, he may have finally transcended Dirty Harry, the role he has long been associated with. Eastwood has been in some flashy, memorable movies like "Unforgiven," but it took a quiet, moving tale like "Million Dollar Baby" to finally push Dirty Harry to the sideline.

Freeman is his usual great self, which should surprise absolutely no one who has seen his past films. The man could probably turn in an Oscar-worthy performance if he showed up drunk and was reading his lines from a cue card. However, despite his and Eastwood's great turns as world-weary men, this is Swank's film from start to finish. Watching her transform from a meek waitress to a title fighter is like watching an ugly duckling transform into a swan. It is a stunning performance that is worthy of every award she won for it and shows that her Oscar win for "Boys Don't Cry" was not just lightning in a bottle.

The script was written by Paul Haggis, who is a great director in his own right. Here, he wisely lets Eastwood take on directing duties to focus solely on the script. It is the right decision, because it allows him to focus on rounding out all the characters. There are great movies where the main characters are fleshed out, but the supporting players may be a bit shallow. With this film, even the lesser characters are three dimensional, thanks to Haggis' smart, emotional script. His partnership with Eastwood in this movie is as powerful a duo as Hollywood is likely to see for some time, which leaves audiences wondering if and when they will pair up again. If they ever do, be sure to have some tissues ready, if the film is anything like "Million Dollar Baby."

Rating: 4 out of 5