Boxing is an emotionally complicated sport. Intriguing the casual fan as well as literary types such as Joyce Carol Oates, boxing requires absolute control over body, mind, and that intangible thing known as "heart." It combines both the romantic idealism of a nobody fighting his way to becoming a somebody, and the gut-churning realism of broken noses, brain damage, and detached retinas. And perhaps better than any boxing movie to date, Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby captures this complicated dichotomy.
Director Eastwood stars as former cut-man turned trainer Frankie Dunn--an old-timer looking for one last champion. When his best fighter switches managers, Frankie reluctantly agrees to train upstart Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), who's as raw as they come. Through workhorse ethics and natural ability, Maggie fights her way to the top of the division, becoming Frankie's surrogate daughter along the way. However, this rise to the top is tempered by an event of tragic proportions--one that changes their lives forever.
It's this tragic event that takes the pedestrian Rocky-esque aspects of Million Dollar Baby to a surprisingly emotional new level. Screenwriter Paul Haggis, working from the stories of real life cut-man F.X. Toole, sharply and intelligently pens this story of losers' last chances, forgiveness, and the rewards that arise from tragedy.
Eastwood keeps the direction tight, simple, and grounded, focusing on the quiet of the gym--where the spirit and stink of boxing can be found. There Swank shows her acting ability, as well as the necessary physicality for the role, resulting in some of the best fight choreography I've seen on screen.
And while Morgan Freeman shines (as usual) as former fighter turned janitor Eddie Dupris, look for real life top-rated fighter Lucia Rijker playing Swank's "dirty fighting" opponent. Rijker is an amazing boxer who may be playing the "heavy," but in reality she's a fascinating character who balances boxing with the practice of Buddhism, as featured in the terrific documentary Shadow Boxers (1999). Like Million Dollar Baby, that documentary goes a long way in illuminating the precarious blend of blood and romance that exists only in the ring.