‘Million Dollar Baby’ movie: Clint Eastwood contrived, overlong drama made (barely) watchable by first-rate central performance
Fresh off the enthusiastically received – and insincere – Mystic River, Clint Eastwood went on to tackle the ups and downs of the boxing world in the 2004 melo Million Dollar Baby. Despite the cheery title, this is not the usual Rocky-esque rags-to-riches story of the determined underdog who inevitably becomes a super-topdog once she (in this case it’s a “she”) puts on her gloves, jumps into the boxing ring, and starts using other women as punching bags. That’s because about two-thirds into the film, Million Dollar Baby takes a radical turn toward tragedy that is as unexpected as everything else on screen is painfully predictable.
In fact, once the dust is settled, even that last third quickly derails into the same sentimental mush Eastwood and screenwriter Paul Haggis had concocted earlier in the story. Ultimately, the contrived, 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 fighter.
‘Million Dollar Baby’ summary
Chiefly based on a short story by boxing trainer F.X. Toole (pen name for Jerry Boyd), Million Dollar Baby provides the viewer with two movies for the price of one.
Part One is the cliched Hollywood tale about the pursuit of the American Dream (or perhaps more accurately, the escape from the American Nightmare) against tremendous odds: poor, fatherless Southern waitress Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) tries 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 (Clint 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 who for years has been, for never explained reasons, estranged from his daughter.
No points for those who guess that Frankie not only ends up coaching Maggie, but that he also becomes her surrogate father. Or for those who guess that Maggie becomes a stellar, unbeatable fighter.
Disease Movie of the Week
In the third act, we are taken into Disease Movie of the Week territory. The “disease” in this case is tetraplegia, the result of an injury that takes place during a fight. Needless to say, all-American, go-getting, kind-hearted Maggie doesn’t actually lose that particular fight; her foreign, butch, mean-looking opponent cheats.
As our 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 churchgoer Frankie must decide whether he will help to terminate the life of the young woman he has grown to love as a daughter. Once again, no points to those who guess Frankie’s eventual choice.
Pulling derivative punches
Both plot segments found in Million Dollar Baby have been told and retold countless times. In order to make such situations seem fresh, Clint Eastwood and Paul Haggis needed to add extra layers to their characters, whether or not they were also found in the source material. Instead, director and screenwriter opted for hoary, one-dimensional clichés that date back to film’s infancy.
Among Million Dollar Baby‘s myriad by-the-book developments are Maggie’s meteoric rise as a fighter, her unlikely bond with Frankie, the dimestore-philosophical narration provided by a sleepy Morgan Freeman (as Frankie’s pal), and, worst of all, the filmmakers’ decision to avoid showing us good guys who carry within them dark shades of gray and bad guys who are more than selfishness and/or cowardice incarnate.
Because of the film’s 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 a Republican is likely no coincidence here.)
Raspy-voiced Clint Eastwood
True, Clint Eastwood’s raspy-voiced “good guy” must have done something vile to his estranged daughter, but we are never told what that was lest he lose our sympathy. In fact, Frankie comes across as nothing more than your average taciturn, just-don’t-fuck-with-him movie hero that dates back all the way to (at least) William S. Hart’s cowboys of the 1910s. (In all fairness to Hart, his somewhat sinister heroes were more complex creations.)
Looking tired – all those Spaghetti Westerns and violent, fascist-slanted cop flicks will take their toll on anyone – 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
As proof of Swank’s charisma, this viewer stayed with her through every contrived 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 hard to resist.
Top of the game
If only Clint Eastwood and Paul Haggis had been as tough 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 sport.
For instance, Morgan Freeman’s narrator calls it “unnatural” at one point – but because of the way boxers move, not because the sport 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 psychological condition only by using her fists is never questioned the way 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 sound 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 only matter because she does succeed – through her fists. She ends up a tetraplegic, of course, but, as Freeman’s narrator reminds us, she has also been at the top of her game, which is more than most people can say.
Surely, it’s all worth it. Or perhaps it isn’t.
Million Dollar Baby (2004).
Dir.: Clint Eastwood.
Scr.: 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.
‘Rocky’ meets ‘The English Patient’
 Regarding Million Dollar Baby Part One, among countless other movies following the same trajectory are the aforementioned Rocky (and each dismal sequel), starring Sylvester Stallone as the underdog boxer who wins the day, and Robert Wise’s uplifting biopic Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), starring Paul Newman as boxer Rocky Graziano.
As for the post-tragedy segment, a well-known drama featuring a similar plot point involving euthanasia is Anthony Minghella’s 1996 Best Picture Oscar winner The English Patient, with Juliette Binoche as the nurse of a seriously wounded Ralph Fiennes.
Million Dollar Baby also has elements in common with The Champ, an unabashedly sentimental tale about a troubled, down-and-out boxer who jumps back in the ring so as to regain his young son’s affection. Father and son reconnect, but tragedy ensues. Directed by King Vidor, the 1931 version starred Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper; directed by Franco Zeffirelli, the 1979 version starred Jon Voight and Ricky Schroder.
And finally, Million Dollar Baby parts one and two can be found – minus the boxing milieu – in Best Director Academy Award nominee Herbert Brenon’s remarkable father-son melodrama Sorrell and Son (1927). Here, however, fate has the son (Nils Asther), now a successful doctor following years of financial hardship, having to decide whether or not to assist in the death of his ailing, selflessly devoted father (H.B. Warner).
‘Manly’ Hilary Swank
 Hilary Swank took on a more radical “manly” role – as a butch lesbian trying to pass for a guy – in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999). Inspired by real-life events, the film earned Swank the year’s Best Actress Oscar, along with numerous other awards.
Far superior boxing drama: ‘Rocco and His Brothers’
Infinitely more complex and more genuine than either Million Dollar Baby or The Champ movies – or Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, for that matter – is Luchino Visconti’s boxing drama Rocco and His Brothers / Rocco e i suoi fratelli (1960), starring Alain Delon as Rocco, Renato Salvatori as one of his brothers, and Annie Girardot as their mutual love interest. The screenplay was credited to multiple writers: Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Massimo Franciosa, Enrico Medioli, and Visconti himself.
It goes without saying that Rocco and His Brothers failed to receive a single Academy Award nomination. It was also bypassed by other U.S.-based award-giving groups.
Million Dollar Baby movie cast info via the IMDb.
Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank Million Dollar Baby images: Warner Bros.