Million Dollar Baby (2004)

In this multi award-winning drama, an old, grizzled boxing trainer is torn between his beliefs and what is right. After asking for trainer Frankie Dunn’s help, aspiring female boxer Maggie Fitzgerald embarks on her boxing career despite Dunn’s refusal. Allowed to train in Dunn’s gym, Maggie shows her resilience and character, impressing Dunn who begrudgingly agrees to train her full time. Through a roller coaster ride of emotions, Dunn is forced to face his own demons while coaching and mentoring Maggie as she climbs the amateur and professional boxing ranks.

Trailer

Cast

Trainer Frankie Dunn is played masterfully by Clint Eastwood. His irascible, jaded persona fits perfectly with Eastwood’s emotional portrayal.  Eastwood is able to create sadness and depth to his character as the narrative progresses, showing a softer, more caring side, which is exemplified in the film’s crescendo.

A ripped Hilary Swank is another highlight in her academy, award-winning portrayal of Maggie Fitzgerald. Starting as an underprivileged and naive novice, Swank’s character builds confidence as the movie progresses and Maggie continues to win in the ring.  The heartwarming self-improvement in the character amazes throughout and the performance proved career defining for Swank.

Morgan Freeman won the fourth Oscar stemming from “Million Dollar Baby” after he took the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in his turn as Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris. Eddie acts as the narrator as well as Frankie Dunn’s Gym assistant.  Morgan Freeman’s softness as Dupris, a former boxer himself, provides the perfect juxtaposition with Eastwood’s grumpy, impatient Dunn.

Maggie and Frankie discuss tactics

Maggie and Frankie discuss tactics

Plot

Maggie Fitzgerald, a career waitress visits the Hit Pit Gym in Los Angeles and approaches renowned trainer Frankie Dunn seeking his training services.  Unfortunately for Maggie, Dunn’s old-school values, refusal to train women and her perceived old age are given as reasons for Dunn’s denial.  With determination, working out tirelessly at the Hit Pit without guidance, Dunn’s assistant and former fighter Eddie Dupris steps in to encourage and advise Maggie, all whilst trying to convince a stubborn Dunn of Maggie’s value.

After Dunn’s only professional fighter decides to move managers through lack of opportunities, Dunn has a change of heart and with the help of Dupris begins to train Maggie, assuring her that it’s temporary.  Maggie’s first matchup is setup by an unscrupulous manager and is intended on being an easy fight for the opponent. When Frankie Dunn finds out and intervenes in the middle of the match, Maggie goes on the win by knockout, proving her natural boxing prowess to the elderly trainer.

Maggie continues to improve and eventually joins the ranks of the professionals under Dunn’s tutelage.  Over time, Dunn develops a close, paternal connection with Maggie, who acts as an adopted child substituted for Dunn’s estranged biological daughter.  The bond grows and Maggie progresses to a championship fight, where anything could happen.

Action

Directed by Eastwood, who attained an Oscar for his efforts, the in-ring action may not be quite as raw as recent boxing-based films such as “Southpaw”, “Creed” and “The Fighter”, but neither does it need to be. With this said, the bouts are no less emotional.  Eastwood builds suspense and drama by using regular facial close-ups of the fighter and corner, attempting to transport the viewer into the moment as seen by the different parties.

This is evident in the first, brutal fight scene involving Dunn’s sole professional fighter. Close-ups of the fighter’s face in between rounds, particularly his large cheek gash, are enough to convey the general ferocity of a boxing fight.  Cutting to Dunn’s reactions in the corner also helps to build tension.

The training sequences are especially important in “Million Dollar Baby”.  Maggie’s progression from a relative novice to a world-class fighter is exceedingly well done and mirrored actress Swank’s own technical improvements off camera. Starting out slow and clunky with minimal footwork, Maggie builds speed and power in her punches and begins to move fluently around the ring.

Maggie’s fights are punctuated by brutal knockouts of more experienced fighters.  A southpaw, Maggie quickly becomes known for her powerful straight left and devastating right hook, dispatching most opponents in the first round.

As she steps up in class under Dunn’s recommendation, her first fight at Junior Welterweight sees Maggie face a more skilled and powerful opponent.  In one of the more graphic scenes, Maggie has her nose badly broken, with Dunn forced to relocate the damaged appendage between rounds to ensure the fight continues.  Given just 20 seconds by Dunn to close out the fight before her nose “spouts blood over the front row”, Maggie shows her grit by knocking out her classy opponent almost instantaneously.

This scene was important for the narrative in several respects. It showcased Maggie’s extreme toughness and tenacity, further endearing her to the audience.  Moreover, it helped to foster the bond between trainer and father figure Dunn and his fighter. This relationship goes on to form the backbone of the drama for the remainder of the film while Maggie’s boxing career takes a well-earned backseat.

The zenith of the film’s action takes place as Maggie fights for a world championship against the wily veteran Billie “The Blue Bear” Osterman, a fighter known for her shady past and often illegal tactics.  The fight is difficult to watch as, by this time, the viewer is heavily invested in Maggie’s success. The match is obviously of a higher caliber to those fought prior, with Maggie and her opponent putting together more fluid combinations, displaying more effective defense through footwork and head movement. The back and forth bout culminates in a serious and heartbreaking tragedy, however, this simply serves to further strengthen the bond between trainer and fighter.

Summary

Although “Million Dollar Babydoesn’t possess quite the same all-out grit the of the latest male-dominated boxing epics, the movie’s strength is in that it hits home emotionally, with the viewer supporting for heroine Maggie’s success.  Despite the awfully tragic ending that will move you to the core, there is a lot that can be taken from this film; life lessons we all need to deal with like character development, gratitude and pushing your limits. This is a must for fans of quality entertainment and boxing fans alike.

Trivia

  • Clint Eastwood was awarded his second Best Director Academy Award for “Million Dollar Baby”. His first came from the critically acclaimed western “Unforgiven”.
  • Many movie critics found the film difficult to review, due to its extreme plot twist.
  • Understandably, Hilary Swank’s exercise regime for the film was brutal. She boxed for two and a half hours per day and lifted weights for up to two hours per day, six days per week.  In the 90 days she had to get ready physically for the role, she gained 19 pounds (8.5 kilograms) and would have to eat every hour and a half.
  • Billie “The Blue Bear” Osterman was played by Lucia Rijker, a real-life professional boxer with a record of 17-0 (14 KO’s)

Film Rating: 8.5/10

Matt Ho is a physiotherapist and martial arts enthusiast, originally drawing inspirations from Jackie Chan’s "Police Story". Himself Asian he spent time in South-East Asia and possesses a deep appreciation for the culture. He trained in Karate briefly as a child and took up boxing six years ago training for fights in late 2015. He's had one amateur bout and several “smoker’” events. Matt now lives and trains in London, where he has also taken up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with a goal of competing in MMA in the future. Matt also has a keen interest in the politics, matchmaking and economics behind professional MMA.

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