Million Dollar Baby

Reviewed By Robert Flaxman
Posted 01/19/05 17:02:24

"Boxers don't cry, either."
5 stars (Awesome)

It’s hard to know what to make of Million Dollar Baby at first. The film centers itself on boxing but can’t seem to decide whether it supports the sport or eschews its worst, most violent qualities. In the end, it almost doesn’t matter – between his acting and fine direction, Clint Eastwood’s talent makes Million Dollar Baby a stirring experience.

Eastwood stars as Frankie Dunn, a grizzled trainer and gym owner who has just been let down by a top fighter, Willie Little – Frankie insisted that Willie was a fight or two away from a title bout, while Willie wanted his shot now. Willie jumps to another manager and gets his title fight, which he proceeds to win. This story, one of two minor ones that integrate with the main plot, is perhaps the film’s most upbeat overall, yet Willie’s success takes place at Frankie’s expense, and as Frankie is our main character, all we really see is his attempt not to take the loss too hard.

Enter Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a fighter from rural Missouri with natural talent but very little technique. Frankie refuses to train her, saying that he doesn’t train girls, but Maggie – with help from Frankie’s old friend Eddie (Morgan Freeman, who narrates the film) – wears him down. In time, Frankie not only believes in Maggie as a fighter, but cares about her as a person.

Like a lot of sports movies, and most of the best ones, Million Dollar Baby uses its sport as context-cum-metaphor, rather than making a straight-up boxing film. What makes it different from most sports films is that the metaphor is rarely so depressing. The film depicts most of its characters as people who have very little, if anything, without their attachment to boxing. Eddie lives and works in the gym; even though boxing caused him to lose the use of his right eye, it’s really all he’s ever had. His narration waxes poetic about the sport at times, but at others suggests that it’s as likely to chew up a person and spit them out as anything else.

Of course, these things are basically true. For every boxing success story there’s a fighter who suffers from lingering effects years down the road, like Muhammad Ali – even the greatest champion of his generation couldn’t escape forever. There are also plenty of cases of fighters being tricked out of money by unscrupulous managers who take advantage of their hazy conditions. The writer of the original stories on which the film is based was a former trainer and cut man who had certainly seen it all and knew whereof he spoke.

However accurate it may be, Million Dollar Baby is still a singularly depressing experience. The film maintains a languid pace throughout, and its dark, shadowy cinematography only adds more gloom to the proceedings. Maggie’s success is so great that one can sense it won’t last; the dolorous final act shifts the film’s focus completely away from boxing and onto the characters – it completes the film’s arc, showing that while these characters thought all they had was boxing originally, they came to have each other as well, and in the end the human connection was far more important than the sport.

Interestingly, Eastwood vastly underplays the emotion in the film. He is not trying to manipulate the viewer; he depicts scenes of emotional weight and lets the audience decide whether to be moved or not. His self-composed score, far better and richer than the single-minded mistake he put together for Mystic River, never pops up in the background of a dramatic scene only to build to a swelling conclusion. The scenes hold their own without such assistance.

Million Dollar Baby is certainly overlong, which is its primary fault. The two subplots offer some minimal background on the characters of Frankie and Eddie, but they are by and large fairly disposable – the second subplot, featuring a kid named Danger with his head in the clouds and no real talent, is more than a little out of place in its comic nature, though it does offer a nice payoff for Eddie’s character. Even the main plot stretches on a bit long; considering how the film ends, the conclusion is almost certainly padded out beyond where it needs to be.

Beyond that, though, the film’s only fault is its confusing stance on boxing itself. Is it the “sweet science”, or a barbaric sport that ruins lives? The suggestion from the film and Eddie’s narration is that it is the former despite being the latter, which is true in some ways but also feels curiously unsatisfying.

As a whole, the film’s faults are few. It is exquisitely made, and the trio of lead performances are fantastic. All three actors have natural chemistry with each other, making their scenes a delight to watch. Freeman’s narration is not quite the equal of his career-defining performance in The Shawshank Redemption, but it is still stellar.

It may be heartbreaking, but Million Dollar Baby earns its heartbreak by never telling the audience how to feel. Despite the emotional heft, the film is never maudlin, but rather raw and earnest. The ending is indeed a downer, but not one that feels tacked on solely to bring the viewer down: pretending that life doesn’t have stories like this would be the most depressing thing of all.

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