Is Million Dollar Baby the best picture of ’04? You bet. Weighing in with minimal advertising expenses and slim expectations of greatness, this film stunned audiences at the prime moment and made its run for the Academy Awards. Million Dollar Baby deserves its four Oscar accolades – including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor – because the film in itself is an antidote to bad cinema. In fact, this powerful, profound, and pristine punch is the very reason that makes being a film critic rewarding.
Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) is a long-time boxing trainer and gym owner, who in an attempt to both find answers to his questions and help ease his guilt and pain from his estrangement with his own daughter, attends Mass services daily. After losing his prized fighter to another, more go-getting, trainer, Frankie soon encounters a 31 year-old female boxer named Maggie (Hillary Swank), who wants him to take her under his wing. Frankie initially balks at the idea of training a “girl,” but after much persistence and dedication from Maggie, and some convincing from his long-time pal, Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman), Frankie eventually agrees to train the girl. From then on, Frankie works with Maggie, the poor Southern-born waitress with an ambitious attitude, on her uphill climb to superstardom. In the process, an undividable bond forms between the three.
Without ambiguity, not only is Million Dollar Baby one of the best modern-day boxing pictures, but it is also one of the best three-pronged character studies of the new millennium. By the film’s halfway mark, the characters are so well developed that the audience is already able to relate to them, laugh with them, and cry for them. At times, the film’s emotions may run high and the uppercuts may hit hard, but Million Dollar Baby makes all the right moves.
With Eastwood at the wheel, it is one rare occasion where having the director step into the view of the camera is an applaudable plus. Eastwood is unquestionably at the top of his game both in front of and behind the camera. In front of the lens, Clint dishes out a nominee-worthy, gruff, yet largely sensitive, Frankie. Behind the action, Clint both blends radiance and darkness together to create a sound sense of visual acuity and pieces together the fight scenes to create some of the most effective boxing sequences on screen.
As for the other two members of the tremendous trifecta of character portrayals, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman exude enough confidence and courage to impress every moviegoer. While I don’t believe that Freeman’s role is anything to gawk at in amazement, his role as the blind-in-one-eye ex-boxer still serves-up superb narration and provides for an inspired side-story. On the other hand, Hilary Swank is as impressive as ever; her depiction of Maggie piles on the perfect pinch of fortitude, heart, and emotion—making Swank beyond worthy of her 2005 statuette.
As a boxing picture, Million Dollar Baby is right up there with Rocky and Raging Bull. In the end, Baby is about so much more than a few fist fights. After its stunning plot development, the concentration shifts from sports clichés to poignant elements of human drama. The story is about love, strength, family, willpower–everything we love to see in a picture. Both the untrodden territory that that film contends with and the heft that Eastwood places on the characters’ humanity, make Million Dollar Baby not only the best film of the year, but also Eastwood’s opus.
If you are a sucker for hard-hitting dramas, then Million Dollar Baby is a film for you. However, this must-see recommendation comes with one caveat: Baby boasts one heck of a right cross. Once you withstand the third act’s powerful blow, you will surely discover that amongst its unique character back-stories, Million Dollar Baby is a flawless feature filled with bravura and one film that should be cradled in your collection. (**** out of ****)