There's a sense of the miraculous at play in Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, of improbable grace arising in the most mundane surroundings. That the film is disarming and poignant, rather than cloying and melodramatic, is a testament to Eastwood's sharp storytelling sensibilities.
Based on F.X. Toole's short story "Rope Burns," Million Dollar Baby focuses not on its title character, a young woman boxer named Maggie Fitzgerald, but on the granite brow and clenched mug of Eastwood himself, as boxing trainer Frankie Dunn. Dunn as we meet him is in fact nearly done: A former ace cut man -- adept at keeping bloodied fighters in the ring -- he's now a senior citizen running a grungy downtown Los Angeles gym called the Hit Pit. He's also managing a rising young heavyweight named Willie (Mike Colter), but his heart doesn't seem in much of anything. A preternaturally cautious man, long estranged from his daughter, Frankie's just marking time.
Onto his card and into his gym steps Maggie (Hilary Swank), a woman whose ignorance of even basic ring technique is exceeded only by her desire to learn it -- and by her monumental mulishness, which rival's Frankie's own. Willie bolts to another manager to get the title shot Frankie's caution has too long denied him; when he wins, Frankie -- who's refused to "train girls" -- surrenders to Maggie's stubbornness. He'll teach her how to box.
Maggie proves a prodigy. Of course. But the movie conventions of her young-acolyte/crusty-mentor relationship with Frankie, and her absurdly swift rise to competence, competitiveness and fame, look thus only on reflection. They don't feel that way when you're watching the movie, and it's largely because Eastwood and screenwriter Paul Haggis have set you up for something like an adult fairy tale, one whose princess is a too-old (at 30) aspiring prizefighter, folklorically decamped from the hills of Missouri like some latter-day distaff Davy Crockett.
The film's story is beautifully framed and annotated by the voiceover narration of Morgan Freeman, who plays Scrap, the gym's maintenance man and Frankie's confidante. Scrap is an aged, laconic ex-fighter whose loss of sight in one eye in an ancient bout is one reason Frankie is so risk-averse. Scrap's narration is earthy, wise and dryly funny; abstaining from repetition of what the pictures and dialogue already have said, and deepening our understanding of the story, it's one of the film's quiet strengths.
With pacing that's brisk but never rushed, Eastwood builds the relationships between his main characters layer by layer: The guilt that underlies the comradeship between Frankie and Scrap, the unyielding passion to fight that cements Maggie to Frankie but is only the starting point of a deeper connection. Similarly, there's growth in Frankie's friendship with an irritable Catholic priest whose services he attends daily, and whom he bedevils with novitiate-level questions about religious doctrine.
At first glance, Million Dollar Baby's secondary characters belie this elegance, and the script's lofty talk of dreams. A tetched young scarecrow who haunts the Hit Pit, boasting of pugilistic greatness and sarcastically nicknamed "Danger," seems stock, if sympathetic; back in Missouri, Maggie's trailer-dwelling family fares worse, its members near-cartoons, the Ozarks roads they live along traversed solely by 30-year-old cars and lined with 50-year-old gas pumps. And Maggie's ultimate ring foe, nicknamed The Blue Bear and played by real-life pro boxer Lucia Rijker, is a remorseless, cheap-shotting East German ex-prostitute, fearsomely photogenic and straight out of central casting, Dept. of Villains.
But the film's rejection of subtlety in these characters comes across, as in fairy tales, as a means to clear the path to a larger point, in this case the main characters' humanity. The supporting roles come pre-boiled down to their essences so that the film's heroes might more readily find their own.
Likewise Million Dollar Baby's tragic twist, which not only upends Hollywood storytelling conventions -- the big fight concludes with no kind of triumph -- but in one lightly telegraphed punch transforms it from a "boxing movie" (which it never really was anyway) into something seemingly entirely different: a "right-to-die movie."
Which it never really is, either. The ring mishap whose consequences define the film's last act happens too swiftly, too unexpectedly to suggest melodrama, and the way the story plays out from there is full of feeling but virtually absent mawkishness.
The 75-year-old Eastwood's iconic status often obstructs appreciation of his acting; here he does a serviceable job, with shadow-heavy lighting schemes doing a lot of the work for a face no one has ever called "minutely expressive." Yet teaming with Freeman and Swank multiplies his power as a performer. The easy, cranky familiarity of old men is wonderfully rendered in scenes with Frankie and Scrap. Meanwhile, Swank's vitality and drive as Maggie, heightened rather than diluted by her sweetness, is a potent catalyst for Frankie's distillation of weariness and remorse. In Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood makes us believe both that their relationship is completely surprising and wholly a product of fate.