Million Dollar DUO

With the superb “Mystic River,” it seemed that Clint Eastwood had reached the apex of his directing career. The film not only garnered tremendous performances, (Sean Penn and Tim Robbins won Oscars for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively), but dealt genuinely with relationships between family and friends handling loss, suspicion, loyalty and betrayal.

In “Million Dollar Baby,” Eastwood again inspires strong performances and manages to delve into a similarly complex set of relationships, this time between an aging coach, his old friend and a young, determined hopeful.

Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is a professional boxing trainer who owns the Hit Pit, a shabby boxing gym. He is an expert at teaching aspiring boxers all the skills they need to become great. However, Frankie’s need to shelter his trainees, and himself, eventually drives them away because he is reluctant to put them into championship fights. Eastwood plays Frankie as a downcast man who has been to mass almost every day for 23 years in search of redemption, but who is still unable to atone for the mistakes he made in the past. One error has resulted in an estranged relationship with his daughter, which fuels an unnecessary subplot in the film. Eastwood adds gravity to Frankie by tapping into layers of sadness and guilt that appear to be the reasons behind his conservatism and cynicism.

Frankie only has one lifelong friend, Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a one-eyed, has-been champion and caretaker of the gym. Freeman again revitalizes his finely tuned trademark-noble role. Despite their constant humorous parade of well-rehearsed insults, Frankie and Scrap have an unusually loving bond based on understanding and, from Frankie’s perspective, guilt over Scrap’s injury.

The movie receives an oomph of energy when 31-year-old Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) forcefully enters Frankie’s gloomy world and asks him to train her. Frankie immediately refuses and tells her that she is too old and that he does not train “girls.” However, Maggie, who grew up dirt-poor and has nothing without boxing, is unwilling to take “no” for an answer. Instead, she spends every minute between waitressing shifts practicing her punches at the gym, and is encouraged by Scrap, who recognizes her talent, passion and ambition.

Swank easily morphs into Maggie both physically and emotionally. After three months of training, the actress’ strong, muscular physique looks precisely like the body of an agile and enduring athlete. Swank ignites Maggie with the vigor of a dogged rookie and endows her with the sheer determination, unshakable willpower and unobstructed focus that are simply compelling.

In an intense scene at the gym on the day that Maggie turns 32, Maggie’s vulnerability astonishes Frankie. Swank skillfully allows Maggie’s desperation to gently surface from under her solid resolve, which moves Frankie to train her. Soon Frankie arms Maggie with a powerful knockout punch that helps her swing her way through several tough opponents. At this point, the story seems like a typical struggle of an underdog who fights against all odds to become a champion. Yet despite the “Rocky”-like set-up, the film takes an unexpected twist, and it becomes clear that the feature is about much more than just boxing.

Cinematographer Tom Stern surrounds the action with ominous shadows, while the director arms characters with secrets that are never fully exposed. The characters shift in and out of light, but they mostly reside in between, in a gritty, gray underworld. There are no easy truths in this place. Instead, the thought-provoking storytelling explores the blurry regions between good and evil, morality and immorality, sin and redemption, and God and death.

In the film, a borderline father-daughter relationship develops between Frankie and Maggie. Eastwood and Swank share a subtle connection that seems honest, profound and loving, but not excessively sweet. Once the film takes a darker turn, Maggie and Frankie face their deepest fears as they struggle to retain their bond, and at the same time courageously get through a final battle. This battle progresses to a haunting and affecting ending that gracefully plays at the heartstrings.