TMN Sports Movie Review: "Million Dollar Baby"

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

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

“Million Dollar Baby” is a dramatic sports film that became an instant classic upon its release in 2004. Starring Oscar winners Hillary Swank, Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood, the film was lauded for its intense emotional drama, character relationships, superb acting and even-handed directing. Swank portrays Maggie Fitzgerald, an aspiring boxer looking for some professional training to help her become the best. She happens to walk into the gym owned by Frankie Dunn, a retired boxer and former coach to some of the biggest names in the sport but whose best days may be behind him. When Maggie requests Frankie's help as a coach, he is immediately against the idea. He trains several unpromising students to bide his time, but he has never trained a woman, and he doesn't intend on starting now.

Unfortunately for Frankie, Maggie is not one to be ignored. She persists until Frankie promises to give her a chance, which happens to coincide with his only decent client leaving him for a more famous manager. Frankie grudgingly shifts his attention to Maggie, who reminds him too much of his estranged daughter. Ever since their estrangement, Frankie has avoided people and tried to keep to himself as much as possible. After being betrayed by one of his last human connections, he has been left raw and vulnerable. Maggie forces him to confront his own demons and face things he would rather leave in the past.

Left with nothing else, Frankie slowly but surely begins to devote himself to Maggie's career. While he initially agreed only to teach her, he finds himself playing manager and becoming genuinely invested in her success. The film is narrated by Scrap, Frankie's only friend outside of the sport, portrayed by Morgan Freeman. Together, Frankie, Maggie and Scrap make one of the best-rounded and appealing main casts in recent film history. Each brings something different to the table. Scrap is seasoned and sage, made wise by years of making wrong decisions and taking the paths most traveled. Maggie is young and optimistic, committed to herself in a way that makes Frankie question his own devotion to the sport. Frankie is hard-boiled and cold on the surface, but harboring a complex inner world underneath.

Clint Eastwood and Hillary Swank have brilliant on-screen chemistry, reinvigorating the mentor and protégé trope of many lesser sports films. While it may be tempting to view Maggie as a metaphor for Frankie's daughter, in reality she is more of a reflection of himself and what he could have been. The emotional conflict that takes place between the two is unique and fascinating, and it plays out organically throughout the film. The characters come across as real people that might exist in any town around the country. Their lives are full of pain, triumph, victory and failure, and their only hope is that tomorrow they will somehow find a better way. This hope is what keeps Maggie fighting in the ring long after she should have been down for the count, and it inspires Frankie to make a comeback that he never thought he wanted.

“Million Dollar Baby” is full of subtle elements that complement but never detract from the brilliant human drama at its core. The soundtrack is soft and thoughtful, becoming bold and triumphant at just the right moments. The cinematography has a natural flow that works with the gritty atmosphere of the film. From the dark, musty fight gyms to the fully lit arenas Maggie fights in at the peak of her career, every scene is realistic and full of detail and atmosphere. The script is perfectly calibrated, and the actors deliver their lines with the pitch-perfect skill that only comes from mastery of a craft. Despite the film's dark overtones and themes, there is always an element of wit and dry humor that keeps things afloat. Scrap delivers some of the film's best lines, and Freeman's smooth narration lends the movie a philosophical yet down-to-earth feeling.

Some rare films manage to strike a perfect balance between style and organic tension. “Million Dollar Baby” is one of them. The brilliant story line and sterling performances from an all-star cast culminate in one of the most heart-wrenching and unexpected finales in the sports film genre. Audiences are sure to love every moment along the way, meriting repeat watches and a designated space in every movie lover's collection. With the indomitable heart of a sports film and the dramatic elegance of an award winning masterpiece, “Million Dollar Baby” is unforgettable.