Hillary Swank (Margaret Fitzgerald), who proved her athleticism in her first major role, The Next Karate Kid, demonstrated it again, pummeling a heavy bag with a power left on which I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end. She's very convincing in this movie - both as a young woman from humble beginnings who wants to make a better life for herself, and as a boxer. In Million Dollar Baby, she returns to the visceral emotional range that left us so deeply moved in Boy's Don't Cry.
Clint Eastwood (Frankie Dunn), who has proved himself repeatedly, has perhaps turned in the best performance of his career. At times irascible, intellectual, mournful, instructive, reflective, passionate - in every manifestation, he reaches you. He was brilliant.
And Morgan Freeman is, well, Morgan Freeman. As the narrator of the story, and an actor within it, he lends a soft-spoken touch that ameliorates some of the film's darker elements. He also lent the film a certain amount of boxing sagacity, as he spoke in non-technical and sometimes quasi-technical terms of the basics of boxing.
This film ain't no Rocky. It has an intelligence and compassion that Rocky (and virtually every boxing film ever made, save perhaps Raging Bull) couldn't think to have. Beyond that, it actually has better fight sequences. More often than in most boxing films - certainly the very poor choreography of the Rocky fight sequences - the punches looked and felt real, or as real as "fake" can make them.
Margaret introduces herself to Frankie after a fight and asks him to train her. He turns her down flat, saying that he doesn't train girls. Given her pluckiness, she appears at his gym the next day, punching a heavy bag with all of the skill, style and fluidity of Pinocchio. Finally he agrees to train her ("finally" takes a while, and watching it come to fruition, the subtle changes in Eastwood's character, is a real treat to watch), and soon she is ready for her first fight.
Here's the only similarity to Rocky: she turns out to be a natural, with a wicked left hook and overhand right (at least that I could see) and is knocking out all of her opponents in the first round. Some might think that this is, perhaps, a bit much. However, in the sport of women's boxing, such a thing isn't uncommon. PLEASE don't think that I'm saying women are not good boxers or don't have the same abilities that men do. It's simply that the increasing popularity of the sport hasn't quite yet led to the kind of talent that exists in men's boxing (although, frankly, talent on that side isn't exactly at it's apex). Her superiority over lesser opponents isn't unheard of.
There's so much more I want to say about this film, because from this point forward it moved from being one of the best films of the year - purely on the strength of the writing, and the performances of Swank and Eastwood in particular - to one of the best films I've seen in several years. I'm so grateful that reviewers didn't give away the ending. I'll just say that the ending is layered with surprises, and that it's been a very, very long time that I haven't seen a single cell phone being used (how annoying is that, even with all of the polite requests and warnings?), and also seen so many in the theater remain in their seats long after the movie ended.
It's a brilliant, brilliant film, the kind that makes me want to go back and change the number of stars I've given most movies that I've reviewed, simply so that this 5 star review means more. I recently gave Sideways, Closer, and Finding Neverland 5 stars, and while they are all very, very worthy films - I'd like to give this one six.