Boxing films are seldom about the sport itself with the possible exception of the Rocky franchise. Other sports films maybe about the sport: baseball films are usually about the sport and its ‘heroes’ as set out in the classic Pride of the Yankees (1942) with Gary Cooper playing baseball legend Lou Gehrig or in football the focus is often on terrace violence in such films as The Firm (1993) or Green Street (2005). But boxing films are more about struggle and human relationships than any other sport committed to film. It often covers some of the best of the films about sport, if not all time with such examples as Body and Soul (1945), the noirsh The Set-Up (1949) and of course Raging Bull (1980). Million Dollar Baby (2004) fits in with this canon of greats such as the latter movies and could even include the original Rocky (1976). It is truly a heartwarming, moving and emotional film made in the twilight years of Eastwood’s career; Million Dollar Baby was made when Eastwood was in his mid-seventies. It also became one of his most celebrated and critically successful films, certainly since Unforgiven (1992) winning a string of Oscars along the way. The smell, stink and sweat of the gym is present here as it is in all boxing films, its protagonists as ever are blue collar. The first two thirds of the film focuses on the struggle and determination of a 31-year-old working-class waitress called Maggie who is persistent in pressing Frank to become her trainer who rebuffs her at every move as he “doesn’t train girls.” The narrator here is the ever reliant Morgan Freeman as Frank’s sidekick and gym janitor, Eddie ‘Scrap Iron’ Dupris, a former boxer himself who retired from boxing following a fight years before in which he lost an eye when Frank supposedly should have stopped the fight. It has become something of a cliché to use Freeman as the first person narrator from The Shawshank Redemption (1995) to The Bucket List (2007), but works once again as he gives his pearls of philosophical and sagely wisdom. Frank himself is burdened with his own guilt that has held him back and we never really discover why he feels the need for seeking atonement with attending daily mass and confessional. He also has a daughter whom he hasn’t spoken to for twenty years who returns his mail. We never learn the cause of their long term rift. Frank runs a rundown urban gym in Los Angeles when a young woman (played by Hilary Swank) with determination begins training there and with the encouragement of Eddie she begins to persist with the discouraging and bitter Frank to take her on. He admires her determination and perseverance and reluctantly agrees to take her on by keeping her from big fights. With time and through Frank’s training she soon becomes unbeatable, travelling the world and after a while a close (non-sexual) friendship develops. But a big fight looms in Las Vegas as she comes up against the dirty fighting World Champion from Berlin, Billie the Blue Bear. Now here is where a spoiler alert should be flagged up to anyone who has not seen the film. It takes a dramatic turn at this point just as you think you are seeing a story about human relationships between a woman down on her luck with a has been and bitter boxing trainer who both find success in the boxing world. Although she is boxing well she is up against ‘The Blue Bear’ who she challenges with like-for-like tactics when the end of a round the bell rings and she is pummeled from behind. Maggie falls and breaks her neck on the corner stool. The film dramatically shifts gear at this point as she lies in her hospital bed no longer able to move any part of her body. Frank remains loyal to Maggie and tends and cares for her. Here he has conversely found his redemption even if he thinks that this could have been a situation that he should have avoided. He turns his venom on Eddie who he lambasts for encouraging to take her on. Maggie’s situation and health deteriorates continually until bed sores and gout lead to her losing her leg. Maggie begs Frank to euthanize her. Naturally he refuses her request and even goes to his priest for moral guidance. He is not to get any support here. After Maggie attempts to take matters into her own hands by biting off her own tongue, he agrees to Maggie’s wishes and after carrying out this hard request he disappears and is never heard from again.
As can be drawn from the story alone, this is a powerful and emotional human drama with a social conscience. But add into the mix Hilary Swank’s performance and Clint Eastwood’s superb input as both an actor and a director with the ever reliable Freeman on hand it could hardly go wrong. Powerful stuff indeed. Even Eastwood’s excellent and moving score tugs the heart strings without any sense of kitsch sentimentality or with any happy ending or even clear redemption at the films conclusion. The screenplay was provided by Paul Haggis who had adapted F.X. Toole’s ‘Rape Burns’ to good effect. Beyond the story mentioned above another touching and sad part of the movie is Maggie’s relationship with her mother and her family whom, before we meet them we get an affectionate account of a working-class family from Maggie herself. But when she takes Frankie to meet her mom in a Rednecksville trailer park we meet her trashy sister (married to a prisoner) and her trailer trash mother. Maggie is offering her mother an opportunity out of the trailer park by buying her a house and paying her bills. All her mother concerns herself with as that as that she may not be entitled to her benefits. Later when Maggie laying in her desperate state in hospital her family arrive after six days in California before arriving as they have prioritized Disneyland over the state of someone they are supposed to love. But they arrive with a lawyer in tow and the intention of her signing over her property. She finally sees them for how they really now realizes that all she has in the world is Frank. Maggie also talks affectionately about her father long since deceased and we are led to question how her father really was as a human being and a father. For Maggie life and death is truly one big struggle. After making Blood Work (2002) Eastwood stated in an interview that this was his last film as both director and actor as doing both roles was too much of a strain; clearly Eastwood has not lost his power as a filmmaker. However, we know that he has retracted this with Million Dollar Baby.