Million Dollar Baby (2004)

2010 #14
Clint Eastwood | 125 mins | TV | 12 / PG-13

This review contains major spoilers.

Million Dollar BabyMillion Dollar Baby currently places 143rd on the IMDb Top 250; it’s on the 2010 iteration of They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s fairly definitive list of critics’ greatest movies ever (albeit down in the 900s); it was Empire’s 13th best film of 2005 (no doubt lowered by being almost a year old when the list would’ve been decided); and, most notably, it won the 2005 Best Picture Oscar. But it’s also about boxing, a subject I couldn’t care less about, and indeed I don’t think I’ve ever seen a boxing-centric film before. Unfortunately, Million Dollar Baby did nothing to allay my suspicions that I wouldn’t care less about those either.

Despite this, and its adaptation from a book of boxing tales, the boxing is used by Eastwood (and screenwriter/was-going-to-be-director Paul Haggis) as a means to an end: this is really about Frankie (Eastwood’s boxing coach character) and Meg (Hilary Swank, apparently on Oscar-winning form), how they interact, change each other, what their relationship means to them. Unfortunately, my total disinterest in boxing prevents any significant engagement with their story and holds back my care for their characters. The training and fighting sequences don’t help, and even the film’s anti-boxing stance doesn’t do anything to change my opinion.

Dramatically, Million Dollar Baby takes off once Meg’s paralysed and the boxing’s done with. Undoubtedly this is built on the foundation of the preceding 90 minutes — how the characters and their relationships have been built up, what we’ve seen them go through, etc — and it goes some way to make up for all the tedium that’s gone before. That it’s a grim and downbeat finale, however, serves an anti-boxing message I already get but does nothing to redeem the tale.

Eastwood is a skilled actor and director and the film is competently made, and at times it’s even more than that, but it’s far from his best work in either field. The same can be said of Morgan Freeman, essentially recapping his Shawshank role as the wise old best friend/narrator; and also of Haggis — whatever your opinion of Crash, the one-liners he added to Casino Royale alone best any moment here. The same may again be true of Hilary Swank, but I can’t remember her in enough else to say. Certainly her character is the film’s saving grace, incessantly likeable throughout and eliciting a smidgen of genuine emotion once all that boxing malarky is finally out of the way. And it’s a good thing she is so likeable, because if her personality was anything less than perfect the tragic ending would elicit thoughts along the lines of “well, if you’re going to go boxing, that’s what you’re gonna get” (rather than the intended sympathy) from viewers like me.

I’m not sure if it’s deliberate or not but, as I say, it’s an incredibly anti-boxing movie. No good character’s life isn’t in some way ruined by the ‘sport’: Meg is paralysed and ultimately loses her life, not to mention realising how awful her family are; Morgan Freeman’s lost the sight in one eye and is reduced to cleaning up a run-down gym; ‘Danger’ gets beat-up; and Frankie’s lost his daughter, gets screwed over by his protégé, and ultimately loses Meg too. In no way is this a cheery depiction of boxing.

It’s funny, really: give me Jackie Chan, or Jet Li, or Tony Jaa, or some Western star’s stunt double, kicking seven shades of whathaveyou out of each other and it’s a brilliant, fun experience; but two people beating the hell out of each other for real in a ring holds not even the slightest semblance of interest or enjoyment for me. Maybe it’s the choreography of filmic violence that makes it more interesting, or maybe I’m just hypocritical — I don’t know, but I still don’t care. Some day I’ll see the likes of Rocky and Raging Bull, and maybe they’ll stand a better chance, but I’m no longer counting on it.

I’m giving Million Dollar Baby four stars out of respect for the skill of the filmmakers and for what it achieves during the final half hour (and in smatterings throughout), but it flies ever so close to a three.

4 out of 5

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