Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby (2004)


(director: Clint Eastwood; screenwriters: Paul Haggis/based on stories from “Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner” by F.X. Toole; cinematographer: Tom Stern; editor: Joel Cox; music: Clint Eastwood; cast: Clint Eastwood (Frankie Dunn), Hilary Swank (Maggie Fitzgerald), Morgan Freeman (Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris), Brian O’Byrne (Father Horvak), Jay Baruchel (Danger), Lucia Rijker (Billie “The Blue Bear”), Mike Colter (Big Willie Little); Runtime: 137; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Clint Eastwood/Paul Haggis/Tom Rosenberg/Albert S. Ruddy; Warner Brothers; 2004)
“Leaves its mark not with a knockout blow, but with round after round of jabs that hit their mark until there’s nothing more left to save except one’s dignity.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The 74-year-old Clint Eastwood (“Play Misty For Me”-1971, the first film he directed) directs, stars, produces, and writes the score for this brilliant drama about boxing, unlikely friendships, and redemption. In its simple aim, it’s about a 31-year-old hillbilly woman from a dysfunctional family, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), who works as a waitress but aspires to be a boxer. On a more complicated level it’s about three characters in search of survival: Maggie, who needs boxing to make something of herself and gain respect; the elderly grizzled has-been fight manager and “cut man” (someone who stops the bleeding), Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), who also runs a dilapidated gym in the shabby part of Los Angeles and still dreams the dream–but lives it through others; and, the elderly ex-boxer Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris (Morgan Freeman), who fought one fight too many under Frankie’s tutelage without becoming a champion and lost an eye and now works for Frankie as a janitor in his Hit Pit gym. Each of the three characters never got out of life what they wanted. Maggie and Frankie still have fanciful dreams and aspirations, despite the odds against them ever succeeding. Scrap, who narrates the story (so everything is told from his viewpoint), doesn’t ask for much out of life and is just trying to get by. “Baby” is also about searching for family, trying to correct past mistakes, and regrets about former relationships. In the third act the film transcends even these personal aims–becoming a boxing film unlike other bleakly told great ones such as Body and Soul, The Setup, The Harder They Fall, Fat City, and Raging Bull. It’s one that has more to say about living and dying than it lets on at first–raising social issues that play for real life-and-death stakes.

The film was adapted by Canadian Paul Haggis from Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner. There are six short stories and the writer and Eastwood picked out the one that was most appealing. The book was written by Jerry Boyd, writing under the pseudonym F.X. Toole. When the book was finally published after being rejected for 40 years, the 70-year-old died a few years later and never had the pleasure of seeing his story made into a film. Boyd had been a fight manager and corner man, and this was the first book he ever published.

Big Willie Little (Mike Colter), an ambitious black fighter with a family, is Frankie’s most promising prospect to win a championship. But the cautious Frankie thinks he needs a few more fights before he takes his one shot at the title. Willie is hungry for the fight now and leaves Frankie for a more prominent manager with business connections. Willie then wins the championship benefiting from all that Frankie taught him.

Frankie is used to disappointments, and after that setback turns his attention back to the gym and the odd characters and mostly minorities who come there dreaming of reaching it to the top. The crusty Frankie has not gone along with the recent trend to manage women boxers but relents after badgering from the earnest wannabe boxer Maggie, who blurts out that boxing is the only thing she “feels good doing.” Scrap adds some more subtle and not so subtle persuasions to influence Frankie, seeing in her all the hopes and passion he once had to be “somebody.”

Most of what we know about the three characters is drawn from what happens in the Hit Pit. The three performers are so good that they make all the boxing movie clichés it uncovers seem fresh. Their story always seems genuine and is accomplished in a relaxed pace giving it a very satisfying special flavor. The little we learn about them is handed out like nuggets of gold. We know that Frankie has an estranged daughter he writes to every week, but the letters are returned unread. There’s no mention about her mother or what might have gone wrong in the relationship. That Frankie, a Catholic and regular attender of Mass, has a confrontational relationship with a priest–questioning the rhetoric of the church and asking for counsel on his dilemmas. Frankie is also studying Gaelic and reading Yeats, evidently brushing up on his Irish heritage. We eventually meet Maggie’s horrible white trash family; but, know nothing about her sex life or how she functioned all these years, except she earns little as a waitress and has to take home leftover scraps from her patrons to survive. In turn, we learn of how Scrap lost his eye and that Frankie never forgave himself for not stopping the fight.

Everything inside the gym is grim. No apologies are made for the sport, nor is it romanticized–just that life is brutal and so is boxing, that’s just the way it is. The characters are trapped in a bleak and despairing world that doesn’t seem natural, but they can’t change it. These characters live on the periphery of society and the odds are overwhelmingly against them becoming a “somebody.” The only time they smile is over little things: a puppy dog Maggie sees in another girl’s car, Frankie finding a diner that sells real homemade lemon pie, and Scrap bemused by a retarded white boy harmlessly punching the air and dreaming of becoming a champ. It’s that kind of a film where there’s no religion, doctors, or family to help out the unfortunate, the injured, and the lonely. It leaves its mark not with a knockout blow, but with round after round of jabs that hit their mark until there’s nothing more left to save except one’s dignity.