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Photo by Merie W. Wallace

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

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