Million Dollar Baby
Boxing drama prefers to beat the tears out of its audience
By Devin D. O'Leary
Million Dollar Baby
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman
With movie awards season heading into its final round, Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby comes bobbing and weaving its way into theaters with just about as many laurels as possible resting on its head. It's already landed Best Actress awards from the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Phoenix Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics. It nabbed Best Director awards from the Chicago Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, the San Diego Film Critics Association and the Seattle Film Critics Association. It also received a special achievement award from the National Board of Review and won Best Director and Best Actress at the Golden Globes. Now would be the perfect time to get in this film's corner and start cheering. ... But I'm not going to do that.
There are times when a film critic's gotta do what a film critic's gotta do. Right now, I gotta beat down a film that, in all likelihood, is a real contender to take home a fistful of gold statues come Oscar night. Adding up the talent both in front of and behind the camera, however, I just can't see what all the fuss is about.
Eastwood has proved himself a sterling director in the last few years, picking and choosing projects carefully and delivering such stoic landmarks as Unforgiven and Mystic River. Million Dollar Baby is based on the “been there, done that” short stories of former ringside cut man F.X. Toole. It should have a certain sweaty verisimilitude to it. “Should” being the operative word.
In addition to directing, producing and scoring the film, Eastwood plays Frankie Dunn, a grizzled old “coulda been a contender” fighter, who now trains second-tier boxers in a run-down L.A. gym. Though he's undoubtedly based on a real coach, Frankie Dunn seems less like a real human and more like some alchemical formula. Eastwood is back in raspy, tough guy, “go ahead, make my day” territory, playing Frankie like some scary cinematic golem composed of leather, Irish whiskey and wrinkles.
Frankie is happy in his tumbledown kingdom and decades-long funk, at least until a spunky young female fighter named Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) shows up at the gym demanding to be trained. Being the gruff old toughie that he is, Frankie hates female boxers and refuses to train Maggie. She sticks it out, though, slaving away as a waitress, living in a crappy motel and showing up at the gym every single day to work out. Eventually, of course, Frankie is won over and agrees to train this female phenom. Conveniently, he's got an estranged daughter he abandoned years ago and is secretly awash with fatherly feelings. As if that weren't standard-issue enough for you, in walks Morgan Freeman doing the sort of well-weathered, wisdom-dispensing sidekick routine he's hammered into the ground since The Shawshank Redemption.
For 75 percent of its run time, Million Dollar Baby follows the tried-and-true underdog, come-from-behind, sporting movie formula. Those who knew Swank before she won her Boys Don't Cry Oscar may even get a certain sense of déjà vu, having seen her hoe largely the same row in The Next Karate Kid. Given that American audiences have rejected every single boxing movie since Rocky IV, it's hard to imagine this one getting all that much attention at the box office, awards or not.
In its final 20 minutes or so, the film takes a major 180-degree twist (which I will not reveal here), turning it into a completely different film. Unfortunately, this completely different film is just as formulaic and even more melodramatic than the first one. Whereas most melodramas settle for simple tearjerking, this one prefers to beat the tears out of its audience. The punishment is almost too much.
Obviously, I'm standing alone on this one. With virtually no exceptions, critics nationwide have heaped praise on this film. For the life of me, I can't see why. It's the same boxing movie that Hollywood's been cranking out since '30s. Sure, Million Dollar Baby is better than the woefully sappy 1979 John Voight/Ricky Schroder vehicle The Champ, but Oscar voters are just punchdrunk if they think it's a whole different ballgame.
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