The last time Hilary Swank donned sweatpants and boxing gloves, she was 19 years old and playing the title role in The Next Karate Kid, the instantly forgettable (and instantly forgotten) entry in that overextended franchise. Now she’s another title-card fighter, and even those who saw Swank’s Oscar-winning performance as the cross-dressing Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry may have a tough time recognizing her in the role of Maggie Fitzgerald. Her hair pulled back, her eyes concentrated into a catlike stare, her body springy and lithe, she’s a bundle of fearsome energy as she sits in her corner of the ring, eager to take on her next opponent.
She doesn’t start out that way. When Maggie first stumbles into the Hit Pit Gym, she’s scrawny and unformed, a determined young woman who has spent most of her adult life trying to outrun her hillbilly past, only to find that it’s still right there over her shoulder. It’s her trainer, Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), who has boxing in his blood. And Maggie’s not leaving until he teaches her a thing or two.
Million Dollar Baby is that rare boxing movie that’s as much about the agony of defeat — in all its myriad forms — as it is about the thrill of victory. It’s a movie that lives and breathes and hurts and bleeds right along with its characters, knowing that sometimes the deepest wounds are the ones that can’t be seen. In adapting the short story of the same title by the pseudonymous F.X. Toole, screenwriter Paul Haggis has allowed characters from other Toole stories to float in and out of the action, including the one-eyed ex-fighter Scrap (Morgan Freeman), to whom Haggis has assigned narrator duties and whose wizened observations carry the warm familiarity of a crackling fire on a cold winter’s night. The result is a deeply knowing study of families abandoned and found, battles won and lost, dreams realized and deferred. All peeling paint and tattered equipment, the Hit Pit itself — a massive set built from the ground up by veteran production designer Henry Bumstead — is a place where The Iceman Cometh’s Harry Hope might have felt at home in the company of other specters of a bygone era. But it is Eastwood himself who has built Million Dollar Baby along the clean, classical lines of a 1930s Hollywood melodrama, only to guide us through trap doors and dark passages we had no reason to expect were there.
MILLION DOLLAR BABY| Directed by CLINT EASTWOOD | Written by PAUL HAGGIS from stories by F.X. Toole | Produced by EASTWOOD, HAGGIS, TOM ROSENBERG and ALBERT S. RUDDY Released by Warner Bros. | At the Grove, Mann Criterion and AMC Century City