Eastwood stars in arguably one of his best roles as Frankie Dunn, the owner of a tidy but rundown Los Angeles gym. On the side, Frankie manages and trains boxers, just as he did years ago for his best friend and gym manager Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman) who goes by the nickname Scrap. Freeman serves as the film’s narrator, much like he did in “The Shawshank Redemption.” He delivers his voiceovers in a straightforward manner and without any suggestive tone. He simply tells the audience what is happening in the film; it seems almost an effortless task for the seasoned actor.
It becomes evident early in the film that Frankie carries a fair share of baggage. Frankie carries an immense amount of guilt for not having been able to talk Scrap out of giving up on a fight that resulted in the loss of his eye. We also learn that Frankie is estranged from his daughter. He writes her a letter each week, but they are always returned unopened. Rounding out the leading trio is the tremendously talented Hilary Swank as Maggie Fitzgerald in a performance that equals, if not surpasses, her Oscar-winning role in “Boys Don’t Cry.” Maggie is a 31-year-old waitress who “grew up knowing one thing: she was trash.”
After the death of her father, Maggie moves from her white-trash trailer park in Missouri to L.A. to pursue a career in boxing, the only love of her life. Maggie begs Frankie to train her, but he flatly turns her down, explaining that she’s simply too old and that he doesn’t train “girlies.” He refers to female boxers as “the latest freak show.” Scrap, however, sees potential in the spunky and driven Maggie, and he eventually manipulates his old friend to take her on. “Don’t come crying to me when you get hurt, and maybe I’ll try to forget that you’re a girl,” Frankie tells Maggie reluctantly when he finally agrees to train her.
The resulting relationship between Frankie and Maggie is one of the movies strongest attributes. Maggie’s heart and ambition begin to chip away at Frankie’s tough exterior, and the two find in one another a surrogate family. “You’re all I got, Frankie,” Maggie confesses. Also noteworthy is the relationship between Frankie and Scrap. The banter between Freeman and Eastwood becomes one of the movie’s greatest pleasures; the two actors interact impeccably. Scrap’s witty and instigating comments complement Eastwood’s portrayal of the hostile and cautious Frankie. It’s as if the two have been bickering for years.
Although simplicity may sometimes hinder a film, the unadorned and gritty feel of “Million Dollar Baby” serves as an enhancement to its heartfelt performances. The movie’s soundtrack (composed by Eastwood himself) as well as Tom Stern’s magnificent cinematography don’t overpower the actors’ performances in any way, a refreshing change from the superfluous melodies many modern filmmakers rely on to elicit emotions from their audiences. The subtle crescendos of the music provide support for the emotion that is already present. Eastwood allows his actors to do their jobs, and when an actor does his job well, the need for mood-inducing music becomes unnecessary. Stern’s cinematography is reminiscent of the film-noir style from the Bogart era. His use of shadows and darkness gives the film added emotion and enriches both its dialogue and movement.
A sign hanging in Frankie’s Hit Pit gym reads, “Winners are simply willing to do what losers won’t.” The actors’ willingness to bare all in their performances as well as Eastwood’s willingness to let his actors take center stage rather than shroud the movie with effects proves that this is the kind of movie that isn’t afraid to stick to its instincts. This film is a winner because it doesn’t need padding; it isn’t afraid to portray life with much of its original ugliness.