Director: Clint Eastwood
With: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank
Runtime: 137 min
Sports movies. Love ‘em or hate’em, they’re a mainstay of cinema. The plucky underdog with the will to win. The grizzled and cynical old coach. The inevitable training montage backed by inspirational music. The eventual triumph over adversity. All standard ingredients but somehow when put together they just seem to get you right there. Therefore, when a sports movie comes along that surprises you it’s a special thing and when that movie is well written, lovingly shot and populated with talented performers it just adds to the joy.
The tale follows Frankie Dunn, the aforementioned grizzled coach, estranged from his daughter and crushed after the fighter he has given years of his life to leaves him for another manager.. He has almost given up his dream of training a champion when Maggie enters his life. Apoor trailer trash waitress surviving on tips and what table-scraps she can scavenge, Maggie has only her dream of becoming the Women’s champion to sustain her. Despite his initial reluctance to train a woman (‘Girly, tough ain’t enough…’) her grit and determination soon win through his rough exterior and together they fight their way to glory.
So far, so standard, right? Except the performances lift it the tale. Eastwood is an icon and no-one else can do granite faced like him but throughout the film he also manages to subtly hint at a man so weighed down by his past that he can’t look to the future. Hilary Swank as Maggie is also superb, carrying herself with a rangy toughness but balancing this with an almost girlish vulnerability. The later scenes between her and Eastwood, with their fatherdaughter dynamic, are a pleasure to watch, the love and reassurance between them is unspoken but always present. Add to this Morgan Freeman’s perfectly judged and understated performance as Frankie’s best friend and confidante and you have a winner. Freeman also serves as a narrator and his natural gravitas chimes perfectly with the seasoned wisdom being imparted.
Still not convinced? OK, let’s talk about visuals. Eastwood has a real eye for a shot. He uses the punching bags, the ropes, the ring itself as a frame. A particular gem is the scene where Frankie finally accepts Maggie, the bag swinging between the two of them. And the soundtrack perfectly complements all these moods.
But this film’s real strength, the thing that makes it a deserving Best Picture winner is its third act. I’m not going to tell you what happens, the masterful twist in the tale but suffice it to say that this is the first film I’ve seen in a long time that has drawn an audible gasp from the audience.
It’s also a brave move for a film that always had award potential as it deals unflinchingly with a very controversial issue. Though the prospect of watching a film which seems largely based around two women pummelling each other may not be hugely enticing, do not be discouraged. Million Dollar Baby is like one of its fighters. It lures you in for the first two rounds then floors you with a shot to the gut. Amazing