- Million Dollar Baby (2004) movie review: A fearless Hilary Swank is the one redeeming feature in director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Paul Haggis’ trite, overlong surrogate father-daughter melodrama set in the world of boxing.
Million Dollar Baby movie review: Even a splendid Hilary Swank can’t rescue Clint Eastwood’s contrived boxing melodrama
Fresh off the enthusiastically received, multiple Oscar-nominated, and appallingly insincere Mystic River, Best Director Academy Award winner Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven, 1992) has gone on to tackle the ups and downs of the boxing world in Million Dollar Baby.
Despite its cheery title and myriad boilerplate plot points, Eastwood’s latest isn’t one more Rocky-like rags-to-riches tale about a strong-willed underdog who’s transmogrified into an unbeatable topdog once he puts on his gloves, jumps into the boxing ring, and starts using other men as punching bags.
For starters, Million Dollar Baby’s lead character is a female boxer; besides, about two-thirds into the narrative, the movie takes a radical turn toward tragedy that is as unexpected as everything else on screen – whether before or after – is painfully predictable. For once the dust is settled, that last third quickly derails into the same sentimental mush Eastwood and screenwriter Paul Haggis had come up with earlier in the story.
Ultimately, the contrived, derivative, slow-moving Million Dollar Baby – which never quite makes up its mind whether boxing is an artful sport or a social disease – is made barely tolerable only by Hilary Swank’s forceful performance as the steadfast titular fighter.
Chiefly based on a short story by F.X. Toole (pen name for boxing trainer Jerry Boyd), Million Dollar Baby provides the viewer with two movies for the price of one.
Ingmar Bergman-esque solemn tone or no, Part One, which encompasses the first two-thirds of the film, features the all-too-familiar account of the pursuit of the American Dream – or perhaps more accurately, the escape from the American Nightmare – in the face of tremendous odds: Poor, fatherless Southern waitress Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) is eager to leave behind her trailer-trash background by punching her way to boxing-ring stardom.
To get there, Maggie begs and cajoles reluctant veteran coach Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) to become her guide and mentor. Frankie is a stoic man (good luck in finding an emotional Clint Eastwood hero) who, much to the dismay of the local priest (Brían F. O’Byrne), doesn’t quite grasp the concept of the Holy Trinity, and for years has been, for never explained reasons, estranged from his never-seen daughter.
No points for those who guess that Frankie not only ends up coaching Maggie but that he also becomes her surrogate father figure. Or for those who guess that the fiercely loyal Maggie becomes an even fiercer fighter.
The Champ meets The English Patient
In Million Dollar Baby’s third act, we’re taken into The Champ meets The English Patient territory.
That comes as a shock because everything else that had happened before had zealously followed the path of every feel-good American sports/competition movie of past and present, from Brown of Harvard, One in a Million, Gentleman Jim, and Somebody Up There Likes Me to the dreary Rocky franchise, Breaking Away, Hoosiers, and Seabiscuit.
In the case of Million Dollar Baby, the tragic incident that destroys everyone’s happiness is the result of an injury that takes place during a match. (See Wallace Beery/Jon Voight in The Champ.) Needless to say, wholesome, go-getting, all-American Maggie doesn’t actually lose that particular fight; her butch, mean-spirited, foreign opponent (an ex-prostitute!) cheats.
As our now-tetraplegic heroine lies paralyzed in bed, it becomes obvious that sooner or later she will ask to be relieved of her suffering. When the inevitable moment arrives, the avid churchgoing Frankie must decide whether he will help to terminate the life of the young woman he has grown to love as a daughter. (See devoted nurse Juliette Binoche in The English Patient and, going all the way back to 1927, loving son/doctor Nils Asther in Sorrell and Son.)
Once again, no points for those who guess Frankie’s eventual choice.
In order to make Million Dollar Baby’s storyline feel fresh, Clint Eastwood and Paul Haggis needed to add deeper layers to their characters and situations (check out Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers), whether or not they were also found in the source material. Instead, the filmmakers opted for hoary clichés that date back to cinema’s infancy.
Among the movie’s myriad by-the-book developments are Maggie’s meteoric rise as a fighter, her bond with Frankie, the dimestore-philosophical narration provided by a listless Morgan Freeman (as Frankie’s pal), and, worst of all, the filmmakers’ decision to avoid presenting good guys who carry within them dark shades of gray and bad guys who are more than selfishness and/or cowardice incarnate.
Due to the Eastwood and Haggis’ near-absolute either pitch-black or shiny-white view of its characters, most of the acting falls into the trap of caricature, with Maggie’s trashiest-of-the-trash family in particular coming across as a living advertisement for the end of all government assistance to the poor. (The fact that the director is an avowed Republican is likely no coincidence here.)
Taciturn Clint Eastwood
True, Clint Eastwood’s raspy-voiced “good guy” must have done something vile to his estranged daughter, but we’re never told what that was lest he lose our sympathy.
In fact, Frankie comes across as your usual taciturn, just-don’t-fuck-with-him movie hero that dates all the way back to William S. Hart’s cowboys of the 1910s. (Though in all fairness to Hart, his somewhat sinister heroes were more complex creations.)
Looking tired – all those Spaghetti Westerns and violent, fascist-hued cop flicks will take a toll on anyone – the 74-year-old Eastwood merely goes through the motions. Indeed, both he and Morgan Freeman underplay to the point that at times it was hard to tell whether those guys were still breathing.
Eastwood’s sole effective moment as an actor comes in a brief sequence at the hospital, when Frankie’s tenderness toward Maggie feels touchingly genuine.
Superlative Hilary Swank
And that’s why Million Dollar Baby wholly belongs to Best Actress Academy Award winner Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry, 1999), who, once again playing a girl doing “a man’s job,” immerses herself in a role with “Oscar” written all over it.
As proof of Swank’s charisma, this viewer stayed with her through every contrived plot twist and turn, as she ran the gamut from brave one-round fighter to even braver hospital-bed heroine – the latter not unlike Javier Bardem in another 2004 right-to-die movie that became a critical and commercial hit, Alejandro Amenábar’s slick The Sea Inside.
Too busy punching bags and people to find time for sexual distractions with either boys or girls, Maggie is as unrealistically fearless as she is sexless. Yet Swank’s puppy-dog eagerness is appealing, and in spite of great odds – the script, not the character’s poverty or family background – she brings such warmth to her role that Maggie becomes one outlandishly tough fighter that is impossible to resist.
Top of the game?
If only Clint Eastwood and Paul Haggis had been as gutsy in their depiction of the boxing world. Their wishy-washiness, in fact, is one of the film’s most damning flaws, for Million Dollar Baby offers much philosophical talk about boxing without ever taking a solid stance on the topic.
For instance, Morgan Freeman’s narrator calls it “unnatural” at one point – but because of the way boxers move, not because the activity consists of human beings using one another as punching bags to the delight of greedy bettors and bloodthirsty audiences.
Also, Maggie’s belief that she can improve her social and emotional condition by using her fists is never questioned, whereas any Hollywood movie would moralize if that same disadvantaged woman wanted to use other parts of her body to get ahead.
Sure, we do see some of the ugly fight wounds in close-up and Eastwood (and his sound editors) make those punches reverberate like bone-breaking cannon explosions à la Raging Bull, but our heroine is a heroine solely because of what she does in the ring. Maggie’s honesty, loyalty, and drive matter – to her surrogate father, to the audience – only because her fists make her a success.
She ends up a tetraplegic, of course, but as Freeman’s sleepy narrator reminds us, she has also been at the top of her game, which is more than most people can say about their own achievements. Surely, it was all worth it. Or perhaps it wasn’t.
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Director: Clint Eastwood.
Screenplay: Paul Haggis.
Mostly from “Million $$$ Baby,” one of the six short stories found in F.X. Toole’s Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner.
Cast: Clint Eastwood. Hilary Swank. Morgan Freeman. Jay Baruchel. Brían F. O’Byrne. Mike Colter. Margo Martindale. Michael Peña. Anthony Mackie. Lucia Rijker. Benito Martinez. Bruce MacVittie.
Cinematography: Tom Stern. Film Editing: Joel Cox. Music: Clint Eastwood. Production Design: Henry Bumstead. Producers: Albert S. Ruddy, Clint Eastwood, Paul Haggis, and Tom Rosenberg.
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Million Dollar Baby movie cast and crew info via the AFI Catalog website and other sources.
Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank Million Dollar Baby images: Warner Bros.
“Million Dollar Baby Movie Review: Clint Eastwood Directs Cliché-Ridden Boxing Melodrama” last updated in December 2020.