"The voice of Frankie Dunn pierced. In the same sentence it could climb high and harsh or loop as sweet as a peach, like Benny Goodman playing 'Body and Soul,' or go down deep as a grizzly's grunt. It could move sideways on you and then curl back on itself, but always the voice pierced the mind with images that stuck..." —"Million $$$ Baby," from Rope Burns by F.X. Toole
The late F.X. Toole's hard-bitten prose about crusty cut men fits snugly with the elder Clint Eastwood, since he's still in a blue-note mood. Toole (née Jerry Boyd) reads like a cross of two all-American writers: Ernest Hemingway, with his love of sparring and exaltation of alpha masculinity, and John Steinbeck, with his penchant for dialect and the underclass. Hemingway and Steinbeck also converge in Toole's Catholic skepticism, his lost-soul hurt. With Million Dollar Baby, adapted by Paul Haggis from Toole's short-story collection Rope Burns, Eastwood invests fully in his source material and miraculously makes of it a tough but tender crowd-pleaser that's equal parts funny, touching, and haunting.
Eastwood plays Frankie Dunn, an old-time cut man and trainer who presides over The Hit Pit gym in Los Angeles. He's representing a contender named Willie (Mike Colter) but hesitates to book his title shot, claiming he's not ready. His uncompromising attitude masks his own fear of hurting those who trust him. Frankie carries guilt for the lot of his best friend "Scrap" (Morgan Freeman); Scrap serves as the gym's watchful custodian in spite of the milky right eye he lost in the ring, under Frankie's watch, years before. Frankie's need for a redemptive fix deepens with each returned letter from his estranged daughter, but he takes comfort in the essential balance of the boxer within his roped-off square.
Frankie's hesitancy repeatedly costs him the glory that is his due, but after an extended courtship marked by Frankie's refusals ("I don't train girls"), the old man takes on Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank). Their deal includes conditions made to be broken, including the all-important rule "Protect yourself at all times." Maggie's a pistol from the Ozarks, street-smart as a whip and supremely ingratiating when she wants to be. Frankie's grudging training of Maggie, paralleled by droll dialogues with Scrap, bristles happily with Eastwood's highly developed dry humor. Clearly, Maggie is one in a million, and once Frankie accepts it, they're off to the races.
In the film's first two acts, you see everything coming. Eastwood baits and we bite, happily. Frankie misses his daughter, and Maggie, as it turns out, misses her late father. A 98-pound gym rat nicknamed "Danger" (Jay Baruchel) consistently irritates a bruiser (Anthony Mackie); they're bound for trouble. In the third act, Eastwood and Haggis (tracing Toole's Steinbeck-esque spine) pull the rug out with a troubling development that shakes the characters to the core. An already stark story becomes bathed in shadow, and what once were sources of humor run bone dry. Million Dollar Baby makes the line between subtle and obvious seem finer than it is, and delivers its one-two punches Old-Hollywood-style. Eastwood lays the groundwork for Catholic crisis with scenes of Frankie "winding up" his neighborhood priest, and Frankie's seemingly casual distraction with his Irish culture detonates ongoingly in his relationship with Maggie, who he dubs "mo cuishle."
Audiences will follow where Eastwood is going, because the characters—if sketchy in design—are vivid in manifestation. Eastwood and Freeman share a brotherly rapport deepened when their characters get on rough terrain. The former sells every corny detail (like Frankie reading Yeats as e.r. doctors tend to Maggie's broken nose); the latter masters gristly narration—full of Toole pith—about boxing as it relates to life ("Boxing is an unnatural act because everything is backwards"). Swank is perfection, wholly inspiring as a character who must be wholly inspiring; her verisimilitude as a woman running, from her hillbilly roots, into discipline and unconditional love both serves the film's churning undercurrents of sentimentality and as its industrial-strength antidote. Swank knows enough to underplay devastating lines, like her estimation of boxing: "This is the only thing I ever felt good doing."
The whole enterprise benefits from Eastwood's usual team of collaborators, including cinematographer Tom Stern and 89-year-old production designer Henry Bumstead (formerly devoted to Alfred Hitchcock). Million Dollar Baby is as instructive about boxing as any boxing film to precede it, and the ring scenes are energetically efficient. Eastwood allows Margo Martindale to overplay the important role of Maggie's careless mother, and to some extent, he lives or dies by his handling of the film's sentimental contrivances. That he mostly lives by it is a testament to Eastwood's enduring ability to surprise his audience. Early on, Frankie voices Toole's equivocal line "Girly, tough ain't enough"; by the end of Million Dollar Baby, virtually undetectable tears trail the creases on his face.