Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) is a 31 year-old amateur boxer looking to change her troubled life through a little guidance. She seeks out the assistance of Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), a grizzled, respected trainer who wants nothing to do with a girl fighter, having enough problems of his own to deal with. With the help of Frankie's friend and former fighter, Eddie (Morgan Freeman), Maggie convinces Frankie to take her on, and the two develop a tight bond that surprises both of them when it is put to the test both in the boxing ring and in their personal lives.
What a curious career for Clint Eastwood. Not only is he as iconic a cinema legend as they come, but behind the camera, the 74-year-old legend has been on a 10-year streak of impressive pictures ("Unforgiven," "The Bridges of Madison County," "Mystic River") highlighting an efficient working style that directors a third of his age would be wise to study. Considering the plot, "Million Dollar Baby" (IMDb listing) isn't Eastwood's most aggressive production. Instead, it delicately adapts the work of author F.X. Toole, through a marvelous script from writer Paul Haggis, into a searing, emotional experience about people looking for loyalty and connection. It takes place in a brutal sporting world, but pay no mind; "Baby" is intimate, tender, and an immaculately built drama.
That's not to say Eastwood can't handle the boxing aesthetic. Though not even remotely as stylized, "Baby" rivals the classic "Raging Bull" in the way it captures the fierce sport head-on. Eastwood, ever the economist, chooses his angles and shots carefully, but he vividly captures the gladiatorial thrust found in the ring, as well as proficiently depicting Maggie's tightly honed talent for knocking people out. The audience feels the cuts, the jabs, and the hooks all because Eastwood doesn't hack these moments to ribbons with needless editing. Making it all the more authentic is the careful attention he pays to building comprehensive relationships between his characters.
Eastwood's performance in "Baby" is just the right anchor the film needs to keep it from sinking due to a heavy dramatic workload, and the cliched material the script touches on from time to time. His gruff, weathered performance hits all the right notes, but also retains an unanticipated warmth that Eastwood rarely lets out. His co-stars are just as striking. Eastwood's "Unforgiven" partner Morgan Freeman is a treat in a supporting role as Frankie's friend and erudite boxing employee. The two enjoy easy chemistry and longstanding acting history. It shows winningly in every frame they share.
The elders are an excellent tease for "Baby," but it all hangs on Hilary Swank's performance in the title role. A chameleon performer, Swank inhabits Maggie both mentally and physically, breaking quite a sweat in both departments. Maggie isn't a lost soul, but her defiance in spirit and lack of guidance has led her into a dead end. Swank captures that lost but ultimately found emotional movement like a champ, and her pugilist skills seen in various boxing matches are just as believable. Swank isn't a seasoned acting pro like her co-stars, but her full-court press in this difficult role is stunning, and her performance is perfection because of her unwavering dedication to the character's flaws.
For the film's third act, Eastwood and Haggis take "Baby" on a serious change of pace. A left hook, if you will. I wouldn't dare give away the plot twist, but it must be noted that it features potentially iffy material, yet Eastwood handles it with dignity and intensity. The ending of "Baby" is as touching, lovely, and beautiful as the rest of the film, with Eastwood guiding this unexpectedly perfect drama to a devastating close. If, as rumored, "Million Dollar Baby" ends up being Eastwood's swan song to the cinema, it's certainly a massive blow to the medium. However, if he must retire after any of his productions, it should be this one: the finest film he has ever made.
Filmfodder Grade: A+