Any film that articulates how the human spirit can try, fail, get back up, try again, fail again, get back up and not take “No” for an answer is bound to find its way to a soft spot in somebody’s heart. But the films that do it really well tend to come few and far between, occasionally leaving skeptics like me wondering whether or not such films are extinct, dormant or just hibernating for the winter. How refreshing, given the fact that it’s been a while since something like that came out, for the “Million Dollar Baby: 10th Anniversary” Blu-ray disc to make its way into my HD library.
Perhaps you missed this 2004 sports drama with a superbly talented trio paving the way for memorable performances, Oscar nominations and a grinding emotional roller coaster all rolled into one. Or, if you’re like me, you’ve just merely forgotten the fact that you saw it once a while back and never circled the wagon a second time. Not to worry; “Million Dollar Baby” is better with each viewing.
Nominated for seven Academy Awards, “Million Dollar Baby” took home hardware for Best Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman), Best Actress (Hilary Swank), Best Director (Clint Eastwood) and, unsurprisingly, Best Picture. From what I can recall, it didn’t have much competition during the 77th annual Oscar program, but even if it did, you’d have to work pretty hard to find something more raw and dynamic. We engage with the characters “Million Dollar Baby” puts forward on a level where they are in control, but simultaneously go through the emotional highs and lows with them as opposed to just watching them do it on their own. We see commentary throughout, both positive and negative, and leave the film’s 132 minute run time inspired and with a few questions. But most of all, we leave optimistic that if, as the old saying goes, the hard is indeed what makes it good, the return on our investment will undoubtedly be worth the wait.
Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is “the man” as it relates to boxing. He knows the tactics, footwork and strategy one needs to not just win a fight, but to make his fighter’s opponents wonder just what the heck happened to them. His right hand man, Scrap (Freeman), keeps it real at the Hit Pit, a run-down but still functional southern California gym where average joes and elites polish their skills. The two have been at it for over 20 years, and in the film’s first few minutes, we get to see some of the battle scars to prove it.
One day, Maggy Fitzgerald (Swank) stumbles into the gym, begging Frankie to train her. Despite his rather scratchy exterior, Frankie gently explains that he doesn’t train girls, leaving Scrap to befriend Maggie (she did, after all, cough up six months dues in advance) and give her a tip or two. After Frankie’s prize prospect ditches him to sign with another manager so he can get a shot at a championship, he takes Maggie on, albeit reluctantly. Their relationship, Maggie’s success and a horrific downfall help guide “Million Dollar Baby” forward as it offers a laugh, a tear and endless triumph.
There are several subplots that weave their way into and out of the film’s main storyline. Scrap works to keep his gym in orderly fashion and occasionally gives a tip or two to a less than graceful younger fighter just trying to find his place in the world. Maggie’s family dynamics are put on display, and we learn just enough about the world she comes from to understand why she wants to be a boxer and not fall into any sort of cycle that mimics her loved one. Frankie writes letter after letter to his estranged daughter, hoping she will one day receive them and they will foster a successful relationship. He also goes to church more or less daily, jabbing his pastor every time he can about everything under the sun. Paul Haggis is the man behind the “Million Dollar Baby” script, and he successfully balances equal parts insight, humor and drama together in a way that provides nothing short of superb character development. At day’s end, we know these three individual souls are intertwined in ways that will never be undone, and because we get to be a fly on the wall as it unfolds, we develop a real investment in and attachment to each individual lead.
After I watched “Million Dollar Baby” with my fiancée (who had never seen the film before our viewing together at home on Blu-ray disc), I tried to tease out whether or not the film was really about Scrap, Frankie or Maggie. I suppose on a surface level it is really Maggie’s story more so than anyone else’s, but the journey Frankie undergoes is substantial once “Million Dollar Baby” wraps up. Scrap? His life, simple but important, is delicately speckled with the impact he has on those around him, indirectly setting him up as the man to know if you want to have an inside edge.
Eastwood’s performance is as strong as his directing. He’s cold, brash and brutally honest (my fiancée commented that, at this stage of his career, he probably isn’t doing a whole lot of acting anymore…and if you don’t believe her, just watch is speech from the most recent Republican National Convention). Swank is thoroughly convincing as she tends to be in challenging, dynamic roles. She takes no prisoners in the ring, and throws herself into the character in a way most actresses would try ever so hard to achieve. Freeman, who narrates, is dry but humane and helps to keep Eastwood in his place from start to finish. His banter with everyone around him helps to lend authenticity, and it doesn’t read false in any way, shape or form despite his frequent presence in and around the ring when something is needed or a service is desired.
“Million Dollar Baby” is a superb film, with fantastic balance and pacing, excellent character development and impeccable detail that doesn’t lose its potent but delicate tone at any point. We get to know its somewhat simple story on so many levels that our emotional attachments get stronger as the film progresses, and at the end of the day, it is hard to come up wanting. Thoroughly executed with one of modern cinema’s masterminds in front of and behind the camera, “Million Dollar Baby” isn’t just as good as everyone says it is. It’s better.
Presented in a 2.40:1 1080p High Definition video transfer, “Million Dollar Baby” exudes some minimal film grain with an otherwise clear and vivid transfer. The film plays with bright and dark coloration very well, exuding bright lights from above with fighters circling one another in the ring and leaning on dark shadows as Maggie spends lonely late nights punching a giant Everlast bag with Scrap keeping a watchful eye. The fight scenes, while not what I remember most about “Million Dollar Baby,” are very well filmed, with the art direction and set decoration looking mighty sharp all the way through.
I watched “Million Dollar Baby” with its DTS-High Definition Master Audio English 5.1 soundtrack. The audio works its way forward very well, and, yes, the punching sounds really awesome. Some of the dialogue is a little difficult to pick up on every so often, but it isn’t distracting in any capacity. You can read the emotion in each character’s tone during the scenes where they’re eye-to-eye around the heavy bag or huddled in the corner between rounds, and it isn’t really challenging to decipher how important the vocals are in developing the film’s emotional connotation. A Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 option is provided also, as are English, French and Spanish subtitles.
The film’s 10th anniversary edition includes all-new special features, including an audio commentary by producer Albert Ruddy, several featurettes and a special documentary titled “On the Ropes,” which chronicles how the film overcame incredible odds to make cinema history. One might be able to describe “Million Dollar Baby” as ageless, and given its ability to develop long term followers (myself included), such a description isn’t unwarranted.
A Final Word:
“Million Dollar Baby” wins on so many levels because it digs into your core and doesn’t sacrifice anything in order to convey its message with raw, emotional detail. The pieces here fit together just about as well as they ever could, and it’s very clear that everyone on screen was invested on a personal level. This is a great film, and it deserves a spot on in your library (that is, if you haven’t already dedicated adequate shelf space for it).