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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Million Dollar Baby" (2004)

I’m going to recommend right off the bat that you see “Million Dollar Baby” now before everyone starts talking about it. I walked into the movie not prepared for where it would take me and I suspect you won’t be prepared either. It looks, from the trailer, like a tried-and-true formulaic sports movie about a student and her mentor. It looks dramatic, exciting and crowd pleasing. It’s all of that, but ends up being so much more. It’s a sports movie, a love story and a character study, but people won’t be talking about any of that once it’s over. They’ll be too busy trying to compose themselves. It’s a movie that takes you down a safe, familiar path, but I wouldn’t give such a high star rating to a movie that stayed there.

Of course, I wouldn’t dare reveal any more than I had to either. “Million Dollar Baby,” as I said before, is a sports movie, in this case boxing. It starts out with a typical boxing formula. An aging boxing instructor/manager named Frankie (Clint Eastwood) owns his own gym and trains fighters, but can’t take them all the way to the title even though he’d probably like to. Along comes a new fighter off the street that could turn things around for the gruff, reluctant trainer: A female boxer named Maggie (Hilary Swank). “I don’t teach girls,” he snarls at her. She proclaims herself a tough girl. “Tough ain’t enough,” he retorts.

It sounds corny, I know, but it doesn’t play that way. The two have chemistry right off the bat. He maintains that he has no interest in her while she shows up at his gym every day and tries as best she can to throw some good punches. She keeps calling him “Boss,” a name he can do without. Frankie’s partner, Eddie (Morgan Freeman), who also lives at the gym, pushes Frankie into taking a chance on Maggie. He sees the determination and spirit in her that Frankie cannot. Before long, Frankie reluctantly agrees to take Maggie on as his new fighter.

Eventually, these two characters form a strong bond and we get the sense that they really need each other. Maggie’s father has died while the rest of her family live in a ratty trailer, scheming for welfare checks. She’s also about 10 years older than most other boxers starting out. Frankie’s past is a bit sketchier. He goes to church every day and writes letters to his daughter that come back to house with a Return To Sender on the envelope. We don’t know if Frankie walked out on his family or if they ran away from him.

The important thing is that these two characters have found one another. “Million Dollar Baby,” as I said before, is a love story and character study. It’s platonic more than anything. Frankie wants to train Maggie and to see her reach the fight for the title. He gets her plenty of fights, but his reputation suggests he won’t get her to the top. Maggie believes in Frankie and believes he will overcome his fears. He doesn’t fear success so much as failure. The more he sees of her strengths in the ring, the more it rubs off on him.

As I said before, “Million Dollar Baby” is also a character study. The mystery behind Frankie’s past leaves a lot of unanswered questions as to why he decides to take on this unusual fighter. Does she remind him of his estranged daughter or perhaps an ex-wife? Whatever the case, she definitely brings him to life in a way no one else ever has. The same questions could be asked of her. Does she look at Frankie as a new father figure or just someone who believes in her in a way no one else ever has? None of these questions get directly answered, not even in the omnipresent narration by Eddie, who seems to know more than he lets on as he speaks in boxing metaphors as the drama off the ring unfolds.

I’m sure this all sounds familiar and not the stuff of a Highest Rating review, but I cannot go further into details regarding the story or the characters. What happens from here on in I will leave you to discover. I can say that Eastwood continues to leave viewers in awe of his technique as an actor, a storyteller and even composer of music. After 33 years of directing and this, his 28th film, he hasn’t lost his touch. He seems to be at another career high following up last year’s “Mystic River” with an equally dark and powerful film about family loss and redemption.

“Million Dollar Baby” will be talked about quite a lot in the months to come. Many will look at Swank’s perfect, heartbreaking performance and how she physically prepared for it. She has more than earned whatever recognition comes her way. Many will debate the movie’s chances for this award and that award. Most of all, people will talk about where the story took them and the effect it had. I walked into this film expecting a solid sports movie but ended up with something much more profound. To me, this is a love story first and foremost, but you won’t know that until you see it. Don’t let me or anyone else spoil it for you.

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