There’s an authenticity to how Eddie ”Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman), the narrator of “Million Dollar Baby,” speaks about the sport of boxing, and the physical and emotional torment that comes with it. That’s because many of his words come straight from F.X. Toole, the author of the original short-story collection “Rope Burns,” on which this film was based. Having been a boxing trainer himself, he understood more than anyone the psychology of the fighter.
The unnaturalness of moving into a fight instead of turning away from it. The madness that’s necessary to willingly get inside the ring and receive a vicious beating and then do it all over again. There is nothing pretty about the sport and the consequences can be devastating, as one can see early on, just by looking at the sole milky eye of Scrap.
Morgan Freeman as Scrap, the broken-down boxer.
Boxers are a bunch of dreamers and most of them don’t get the glory they dream about. Some of them, like Scrap himself, must live with the permanent damage the sports has caused them – in the case of Scrap, it’s the loss of sight in one of his eyes. But there’s magic too, as Scrap states so beautifully: ”The magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you.”
Dupris is a broken down fighter and he speaks like one. He tells this story to the estranged daughter of his friend Frankie Dunn (Eastwood). Dunn sends a letter to his daughter every week, but she returns them every time. The film never clarifies why his daughter refuses to speak to him, but we know it must have been due to something terrible – and knowing Dunn’s profession, it probably had something to do with his fist. Dunn can be cocky, even cruel sometimes. But don’t be fooled by this – he cares about people even if he has trouble showing it.
It comes out the in the most peculiar of ways, such as how he keeps stopping his prize fighter, Willie (Mike Colton), from seizing the championship belt because he’s afraid that he’ll get hurt, despite the fact that Willie has been more than ready for some time now. He goes to Mass every week to make fun of the priest, but deep down inside, he wants forgiveness for something terrible. He’s a man of serious regret and who, by the end of the film, gives away his soul so to help the woman he loves.
Clint Eastwood as Frankie Dunn, a man of serious regret.
This woman is Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a poor, trailer-trash waitress who insists that Dunn be his trainer. Since Dunn hates the idea of training girls, he refuses this without question. But Scrap sees something in her, and with Scrap’s help, Dunn eventually takes her on. In time he begins to see that she’s a real fighter, and in spite of her age and upbringing, that boxing was something she was made to do. Together with Scrap, the threesome becomes a family, with Maggie becoming Dunn’s surrogate daughter.
Hilary Swank as Maggie Fitzgerald, the woman who is willing to risk everything for a dream that nobody sees but her.
The third act of the film is heartbreaking. You know something bad will happen, but when it does, it’s like getting hit by a prize fighter: you’re knocked down and it’s hard to get back up again, but you have to. But it will take time to pace your breath and get your act together. The wounds will hurt for a while but now you have to live with it.
This doesn’t mean the film is never fun; there’s great verbal and sometimes humorous dialog between the three perfectly cast leads. The subplot involving Scrap’s final fight as he’s defending a mentally slow boxer calling himself ‘Danger’ (Jay Baruchel) is especially crowd-pleasing.
Danger is the epitome of the hopeless dreamer. A fighter with nothing but heart, which, as Frank would say to Scrap, is a man ”waiting for a beating.”
Jay Baruchel as Danger, a fighter with all heart.
As Eastwood’s Charlie Parker biopic “Bird” is filled with dark scenes in smoky jazz clubs, so this film is mostly filmed in the dark training rooms or dressing rooms where the fighters prepare themselves for the arena. Eastwood enters this strange world, as he has done so with countless others in his previous films, seamlessly, using great source material (perfectly adapted by Paul Haggis) to make this world so believable.
“Million Dollar Baby” is simply a perfect movie. While some might criticize the actions of Dunn as though Eastwood was making some sort of ethical statement regarding the value of paraplegics, it doesn’t take away the effectiveness of his drama.
The actions of Dunn’s character had nothing to do with making a political or ethical statement on the whole of this issue. These cases differ in their individual complexities and Eastwood was never interested in generalizing them in this film. Eastwood is not interesting in preaching to you, he’s interesting in telling a story. The story of Million Dollar Baby being the long and painful journey for the dream that nobody sees but you- the dream that might possibly never come to fruition- and the story of what people are willing to do for love.
We must watch this in the context of Maggie and Dunn’s character instead of putting it in the context of our political bias. It’s hard for many people to distance Eastwood from his political statements, which is a shame because you would be missing out on some incredible works of art. Million Dollar Baby is one of his greatest films. It’s a film that will stick with you like a deep internal wound, the kind we get from the greatest fights of our lives.