A passion project for actor/director Clint Eastwood, who exercises his film-making chops both in front of and behind the camera, Million Dollar Baby (2004) is an empathetic masterpiece – far and away the most engrossing and meaningful Best Picture winner produced within the last ten years.
For in its stark and stylized backdrop, its relentless screenplay by Paul Haggis, that illustrates the hard knocks and lost opportunities inside the unglamorous world of professional boxing, the heart of a champion collides with the wide-eyed optimism of a dreamer destined to have her heart broken.
The film stars Eastwood as Frankie Dunn – a has-been fight manager and gym owner, estranged from his daughter, whom he writes to every week, and whose latest ticket to the big time, Willie Little (Mike Colter) has just given him the ol’ heave ho.
Frankie’s gym is, in fact, a refuge for the last chance pugilist – the down and out who still cling to hope when all else has failed. Hence, newbie to the establishment, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) is in good company. She aspires to professional greatness without knowing the first thing about how to make her dreams a reality. Maggie's ambition is to get Frank to coach her in the art of prize fighting.
At first, Frank balks at the suggestion. But there’s something different about Maggie. Maybe she’s too ignorant to know any better, but nothing gets her down; not Frank’s constant rejections (“I don’t train girls” he tells her), nor even her ‘back of the rails’ white trash family, who think nothing of spitting on Maggie’s dreams even as they take the hard earned charity she doles out with equal portions of humility and unquestioning kindness.
Initially, it doesn’t look as though Frank’s curmudgeonly exterior will melt to Maggie’s backward charm. However, even with his glass eye, Frank’s gym manager, Eddie Scrap-iron Dupris (Morgan Freeman) can spot a winner. Soon, the pair is coaching Maggie for the big time. Her rise is swift and assured – driving home one KO after the next until Frank suddenly realizes that maybe he just might have his ‘million dollar baby’ all sewn up in Maggie’s hard left hook.
Regrettably, both Maggie and Frank are set up to have their hearts and hopes destroyed. After a freak accident in the ring paralyzes Maggie from the neck down, Frank turns inward and reclusive. He visits Maggie at the rehabilitation facility on several occasions and attempts in vain to contact her family.
When the family finally does arrive, it is with an attorney in tow and the request that Maggie sign over all her money and assets to them. Instead, Maggie delivers an ultimatum; leave and never contact her again or she will sell the home she bought and paid for and turn her sponging mother and siblings out into the street. The embittered clan depart and never visit Maggie again.
From here, the once resilient boxer begins to lose her will to live - asking Frank on his subsequent visit if he will help her commit suicide. At first, Frank refuses, consulting Maggie's priest instead, who also denounces the idea as murder. But Frank, realizing that a life without the ring is no life at all for Maggie, has had a change of heart. He returns to the rehabilitation centre after visiting hours, tenderly saying his goodbyes before injecting Maggie with a lethal dose of adrenaline. Afterward, Frank disappears and is never heard from again, leaving Eddie to relay to Frank's estranged daughter the true testament of his character.
About as far removed from the ‘feel good’ flourish that permeated the other Oscar winning boxing flick - Rocky (1976), Million Dollar Baby packs a powerful wallop on more than one level. There is palpable chemistry between Eastwood, Freeman and Swank as three kindred spirits out to defy the world with a smile and right cross.
Swank proves once and for all that she is one of the greatest living actresses of this or any generation, delivering a seemingly unrehearsed, honest and introspective performance – as genuine and from the heart as anything glimpsed from a decade’s worth of Best Actresses gone before her.
It goes without saying, but worth mentioning, that Freeman and Eastwood are pros from that rarefied ilk. The screenplay by Paul Haggis (based on F.X. Toole’s stories), is tangibly real and unsympathetic. Writing this good deserved so much more than just an Oscar nomination. In the final analysis, Million Dollar Baby is what so few Oscar winners of the most recent generation are not – deserving of all the accolades and critical praise with much more to come. This is one hell of a good show!
Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray easily bests its 2 disc standard DVD. The stylized color palette is perfectly recreated with desaturated hues and fine detail realized throughout - even during the darkest scenes. Pixelization and edge enhancement that plagued the DVD release have been eradicated herein for an image that is both smooth and satisfying while at the same time razor sharp. The lossless HD audio is aggressive as expected. However, early on Morgan Freeman’s narration seems inaudible or, at the very least, mumbled – even when played at higher decibel levels.
Extras boil down to three featurettes that cover the production from every conceivable angle - all direct imports from the standard disc. The real flub is no audio commentary to accompany the feature – a real shame or sham; whichever you prefer. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)