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Down for the Count

 

Million Dollar Baby

Clint Eastwood, USA, 2004

Rating: 2.6

 

Posted: January 29, 2005

By Laurence Station

(Editor's Note: Spoiler Alert: Major plot points are revealed in this review. Sorry, but that's just the way it is. If you're upset that you won't be able to figure out whether you'd like the film without reading the review, well, the rating up above pretty much says it all. -- Kevin Forest Moreau, Editor-in-Chief)

Finally, a boxing movie Dr. Jack Kevorkian can love. Obviously, everyone has the right to die. But what if a person who wants to die is physically incapable of terminating his or her own life? Well, that's when you need a little help from your friends. Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby is far more interested in saying something about living and dying than it is with examining the game of boxing. Instead, it uses the ring and the gym as staging points for director Eastwood to mediate on the choices people make, for better and worse, that define who they are and what their lives have meant. Boxing is a sport where one bad blow can kill a person -- that's part of the thrill, for spectators and participants alike: There's a grim finality to pugilism, and that's what draws people to the matches.

In Million Dollar Baby Eastwood plays Frankie Dunn, a veteran trainer who owns a gym and watches his heavyweight protégé walk out on him (and subsequently win his coveted title with a new manager). Frankie is considered a great teacher, but too cautious to coach a fighter all the way to the top. Enter Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a 31-year-old, dirt-poor waitress with aspirations of becoming a great fighter. She wants Frankie to train her, but he doesn't "train girls." Naturally, Maggie sticks around the gym anyway, and Frankie ultimately gives in and takes her under his wing.

Morgan Freeman plays Scrap, a retired boxer and, seemingly, Frankie's only friend. Scrap manages and lives at the gym, and offers an omniscient voice throughout, clueing us in to private details about the other characters: Maggie knows she's trash; Frankie is scared of success, always pulling up short with his fighters when he should be urging them toward bigger and better contests. How Scrap attains such wisdom is a mystery, but his narration does slot in cozily with the multitude of clichés plaguing this movie.

From the old trainer taking on the untested newcomer, to the Irish Catholic priest Frankie confides in and argues with, all the way to the big fight itself, Million Dollar Baby regrettably holds to the traditions of predictable plot turns and ham-fisted messages about life and loss -- a tradition which has followed boxing films since Wallace Beery's Depression-era The Champ. Yes, Maggie goes from neophyte to contender in a relatively short span of time. Yes, she breaks through Frankie's gruff exterior, becoming a surrogate daughter to a man who's (no, really?) estranged from his only child. And yes, her opponent in the big title match is a thoroughly unlikable cheater who's also much bigger and stronger than she is.

But there doesn't have to be anything wrong with all of that. Honestly, if Million Dollar Baby were just a boxing movie most of this could be forgiven -- all of the above falls right in line with the genre's conventions and expectations, and that's hardly a capital offense. But Baby aspires to be so much more than a mere boxing picture. All of the pugilism is just setup for the last third, when Baby morphs into a "dying with dignity" flick.

And that's where it craters. Following Maggie as she rises through the ranks is at least entertaining. Though she wins her matches with credulity-straining ease, it's still exciting. It's when Maggie suffers a paralyzing injury in the ring and asks Frankie to end her life that Million Dollar Baby shamelessly manipulates its audience. And it doesn't let up, piling on emotionally devastating moments like when Maggie's embarrassingly stereotypical trailer-trash family arrives at the hospital and attempts to force Maggie to sign over her winnings to them. And then an infection sets in, and one of Maggie's legs has to be amputated. It's just ridiculously excessive. Why does it have to be so catastrophic? Ah, but there's a reason. Eastwood can't justify snuffing out Maggie's life just because Maggie can't face living life as a severely disabled person. No, it has to be because she's suffers so enormously that we, the audience, will actually be rooting for Frankie to pull the plug on his plucky prizefighter. So to make sure we do, the hardships must multiply.

If you've got to bend over so far backwards to justify a person's right to die, then maybe you shouldn't be taking a stance on such an inflammatory position at all. Million Dollar Baby might have made a decent addition to the boxing-film genre, had it not gotten bogged down by weighty pretensions regarding fate, choice and empty resolutions. Eastwood should have never left the boxing ring.

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