Million Dollar Baby (2005) – Eastwood’s Sucker-Punching Title Shot…
Million Dollar Baby overcomes its naff title quickly, and after it’s opening scene, settles into a pedestrian pace for the rest of the movie. Eastwood the director is not concerned with pandering to the short attention spans of modern audiences, and forgoes the all-to-common MTV-style editing of many films today, even in his fight scenes.
Instead, he trusts his audience to sit quietly and get involved with his characters. To Eastwood, the camera is a tool that creates an oblong-shaped picture, and if he points it long enough at some committed and talented actors, it will capture performances that will move the viewer and stay with them after the film has finished.
We are introduced to Frankie (Eastwood), a gruff boxing trainer who is also, according to Morgan Freeman’s voice-over, the best “cuts man” he’s ever seen.
Frankie has been nurturing his fighter towards a title fight for years; however, his man feels that time is passing him by, and ditches the veteran for a manager who will fast track him to the big time.
This leaves Frankie to mope around his grimy, old school LA gym, “The Hit Pit”, write letters to his estranged daughter he knows will be returned unopened, and attend Mass. This is a hobby he uses as an excuse to wind up his local Priest.
He is soon pestered by Maggie (Hilary Swank) to be her trainer. She is a girl from a redneck family, who has decided in her early thirties to quit waiting tables and become a boxer, despite being hardly able to hit a speedbag.
Frankie is reluctant – he’s an old school guy, and doesn’t train girls, and besides, she’s starting out when most fighters are thinking about hanging up the gloves.
However, he is encouraged by his old friend “Scrap” Dupris (Morgan Freeman), who works at the gym to take a closer look.
Scrap spends his time cleaning floors and exchanging crotchety banter with Frankie. He also lives in a grim little room at the gym, and is intrigued by Maggie’s all night sessions at the bag. She unrelentingly attempts to train herself, and Scrap starts to believe this girl might have something.
Frankie grudgingly starts to train her. Benefitting from his old wisdom, Maggie soon makes it into the ring, and flattens every challenger on her way towards a title fight.
So far, so Rocky, and Freeman’s voice over adds to the air of familiarity, calling to mind his similar work in The Shawshank Redemption. His terse observations resembling Shawshank’s Ellis “Red” Redding with a touch of laryngitis.
However, around two-thirds of the way through, the film takes a turn in a different direction, and in keeping with the the story’s surprises, Freeman’s voice over has a nice pay off as part of the actual plot.
It is best to see Million Dollar Baby knowing as little as possible about it, as it will certainly be more moving and powerful that way.
Eastwood takes his time to explore the deep love and loyalty his characters develop for each other, and what they are eventually prepared to sacrifice for that love.
Performance wise, Eastwood and Freeman seem happy to play second and third banana to Hilary Swank in roles that have become comfortable to them over the years – Eastwood’s lean, mean old bastard routine and Freeman’s sad, wise sage.
Mirroring the film itself, these two old timers ably assist Swank in her title shot (She took Best Actress at the 2005 Academy Awards). Sshe is initially quite annoying with her hillbilly accent and plucky determination, but eventually convinces as a young woman prepared to run through brick walls to achieve her dream.
Eastwood comes off worst of the three, looking more wooden than usual in the early scenes and struggling with the lighter moments. Unlike Gran Torino‘s Walt he doesn’t seem to inhabit the role of Frankie, and only gets stuck in later in the film.
Visually, Million Dollar Baby is flat and drab, creating a sense of jaded reality. The use of shadow is interesting. In some scenes the actor’s faces are partially or completely hidden, forcing you to simply listen to their words.
Million Dollar Baby, downbeat and meandering as it is, makes an excellent addition to Eastwood’s latter day portfolio. His confidence in telling a story the old fashioned way, with no gimmicks, and treating his audience like grown ups makes him one of the most refreshing directors of the past two decades.