Producer/Director/Composer/Star Clint Eastwood has pounded an emotional knockout punch with his movie, “Million Dollar Baby.” What could have been an uplifting female “Rocky” story turns more tearfully tragic than “Terms of Endearment.” It’s a solid hit for the Hollywood veteran.
Based on the short stories, “Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner,” by the late boxing cutman and manager Jerry Boyd (aka F.X. Toole), “Baby” introduces us to boxing cutman and manager Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), who runs his L.A. gym wearing a heavy chip on his shoulder. One of the skeletons in his closet is his estranged daughter, Katie. He writes her every day, only to have the letters returned, and never misses a morning at Mass. Needling Father Horvak (Brian O’Byrne), he repeatedly asks unanswerable theological questions, making the priest wonder what motives Frankie’s overpowering guilt.
Tough, gruff Frankie’s life takes an unexpected turn when fledging boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), walks into his gym. Considering herself white trash from the Ozarks, Maggie knows that the way to self-esteem is through boxing, a sport to which Frankie holds the key. Initially resisting a “girlie” athlete, the sour trainer caves in when gym operator/ ex-boxer Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris (Morgan Freeman) convinces him to give her a shot. This is also after the boxer whom Frankie’s training for the big time, Big Willie Little (Mike Coiter), hooks up with another manager (we learn that Frankie’s shell-shocked about title fights because he didn’t prevent Scrap from losing his eye in one).
At this point, “Baby” begins an upward spiral, as Frankie bonds father-daughter with Maggie, who’s battling her way to the world championship. Then, in the title battle against nasty Billie “The Blue Bear” (Lucia Rijker), fate and dirty tactics throw Maggie a left hook.
Without giving away the ending, it’s safe to say that Frankie has to fight a worse bout than any in the ring. What happens is dramatically devastating and should leave all, but the most hardened audience members searching for tissues. While Swank and Freeman offer powerful portrayals, Eastwood tears up the screen with his understated style in the best performance of his career. Lately, it is almost taken for granted that he is a talented director, but what’s often overlooked is the acting ability that made him a star in the first place.
“Million Dollar Baby” is a hard hit to the heart. Don’t miss it.