Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) is a pastor’s nightmare: He attends every service, pays attention to what is said, and asks questions about the faith so tough they can make a priest curse.
Frankie is also a part of the sweet science called boxing, and we hear his story told by an old boxer named Scrap (Morgan Freeman).
When Scrap cleans up the gym Frankie owns, in walks Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a hillbilly girl who waits tables and dreams of being a boxing champ. Frankie does nothing but discourage Maggie. He tells her he doesn’t train girls, but she is determined.
Scrap tries to help her, and as time passes, Frankie’s resistance wanes and he begins to train Maggie. She quickly becomes a monster in the ring, generally knocking out each opponent in the first round. Frankie gives her only two rules: Ask no questions, and protect yourself at all times.
The constant winning pushes Maggie into a bout with the champion, who is known to cheat. This match changes Maggie and Frankie—and it changes the movie.
“Million Dollar Baby” may superficially seem like a Lifetime movie, but there is more going on here. Frankie’s struggle of guilt and faith is an important subtext of the movie, which is not just “another sports movie” or another “Rocky.”
Clint Eastwood plays Frankie in the same way he plays William Muny from “Unforgiven.” A weariness on his face speaks to the weariness of living. Many will see Eastwood here and wonder what is different from any other Eastwood role. Little may be different, but Eastwood embodies so well those who have been chewed up by life like bubble gum.
Hilary Swank plays Maggie as the same kind of person. She must take leftover food from the plates of customers she serves as a waitress. She tells her boss it’s for her dog, but he knows and we know. She lives, metaphorically speaking, in a dark tunnel, but Frankie and boxing are part of the light that can lead her out.
Eastwood directs this movie, having learned his craft from Don Siegel (director of “Dirty Harry” and several other Eastwood starrers). Siegel was a no-nonsense director who believed in getting the shot quickly and moving on. Eastwood adopted this style of moviemaking, which means he doesn’t waste a moment. We see that here; his shots are full of meaning. His actors waste nothing, helping make his movies so vital.
In the midst of Eastwood’s trim style is the struggle of a man who wants absolution from his guilt and sin—but always seems to draw the short stick. His troubled soul, played close to the bone, moves us and makes for a truly moving movie.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, some disturbing images, thematic material and language. Reviewer’s Note: One scene has a priest who curses outside his church. The undertone of religious and spiritual conflict may be too much for some viewers.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Paul Haggis
Cast: Frankie Dunn: Clint Eastwood; Maggie Fitzgerald: Hilary Swank; Scrap: Morgan Freeman.
The movie’s official Web site is here.
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.