IN THIS CORNER: Eastwood and Swank.
While I can pretty much take or leave sports of all stripes, from pole-vaulting to pro football, some people find it funny that I’m such a nut about movies that fit into the “sports film” genre. I suppose that’s because sports films usually have about as much to do with how a given sport is played as french fries do with Gay Paree.
While sports are often about pauses for commercials, inches and yards, and — in the case of modern pro sports, anyway — greed, sports movies are all about heart, stamina, dreams and the desperate love of a thing that beats you up, twists your body into a pretzel, and makes you old before your time.
Even at that, we might have to come up with a whole new set of definitions for “Million Dollar Baby.” Not only does it stand toe-to-toe with the best boxing pictures of all time, by sheer heart and soul it slips the bonds of genre and manages to become a higher thing than even that: a true piece of art about how love and compassion can bloom from even the stoniest dirt.
Here, Clint Eastwood (who also directs) plays Frankie Dunn, a washed-up boxing trainer and manager who has lost his nerve when it comes to sending his fighters into harm’s way. The kind of guy who goes to mass just to pester the priest about how God can be both one and trinity, Dunn owns a sweat-stained gym called the Hit Pit in a seedy town on the Cali coast and has only one real friend, a worn-out fighter-turned-janitor named Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman), whose career ended when he lost an eye. Every night, Dunn goes home and writes a letter to his long-estranged daughter, even though he has boxes of them in his closet, all unopened and marked “return to sender.”
Soon after his last hope at a title fight goes to another manager, Dunn is approached by Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a transplanted Missouri hillbilly who wants to be a female boxer. Though Dunn initially tells her he doesn’t train girls, after watching her come to the Hit Pit day after day, busting her fists on the bag and paying her fees with tip-jar nickels from a waitressing job, first Eddie and then Dunn take her on in a series of touching and beautifully filmed scenes, showing her how to hit like a boxer, how to protect herself, how to constantly shift her weight in a kind of slow dance. With Dunn’s help and guidance, Maggie eventually makes it to the top of the boxing world, and both Eddie and Dunn get their souls back before a final, tragic event far too substantial to be called a “twist” — and an ending that proves the depth of Dunn’s love for the fighter who has become his surrogate daughter.
Often heartbreakingly lovely, with a soundtrack of simple, plucked guitar music — a movie where even the throw-away scenes of grimy locker rooms and overflowing toilets are little works of art — “Million Dollar Baby” might just be my favorite serious sports movie ever (sorry for the qualifier, but I’ve still got a soft spot for “Bull Durham”). Swank, Eastwood and Freeman are all at the top of their game, though Morgan Freeman gives his usual genius-level performance in a simple role and manages to best them all.
In short, this is one of those films that doesn’t often come along. Even if you aren’t a boxing fan, see it soon.
— By David Koon