Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Million Dollar Baby, much like its fledgling female boxing character, has come out of nowhere and made a considerable deal of noise. This little homespun film directed by Clint Eastwood didn’t have the glitz and sheen of other awards friendly movies, but now it seems that Eastwood?s own baby may clean up come Oscar time. Can Million Dollar Baby tackle the enormous hype surrounding it? Yes and no.

]Frankie (Eastwood) is a hardened boxing trainer too concerned for his fighters’ welfare to allow them to fight in championship bouts. He’s the kind of cynical old man that enjoys pestering a priest and causing him to unleash an F-bomb. Frankie and his longtime friend Scrap (Morgan Freeman) run a rundown gym and talk un-sentimentally about their older days as prize fighters. Then along comes Maggie (Hilary Swank), a 32-year old waitress who’s got nothing to believe in except her possibility as a boxer. She wants Frank to train her into the champ she knows she can be. He refuses saying he doesn’t train girls. She’s so determined she won’t take no for an answer. Frank finally agrees, especially after some help from Scrap, and starts to teach Maggie everything she needs to know to be a star pugilist. The two begin to open up to each other emotionally and Maggie seems destined to become a force in the ring.

Million Dollar Baby‘s greasiest attribute is its trio of knockout performances. Swank owns every second of this movie. She’s unremittingly perky, conscientious but also dogged, stubborn, and irresistibly lovable. Swank embodies the role with a startling muscular physique and a million dollar smile. Her performance is equal parts charming and heartbreaking. Maggie’s the heart of Million Dollar Baby and Swank doesn’t let you forget it for a millisecond. Come Oscar time, I’m sure she will be walking onstage to grab her second Best Actress Oscar in five years.

No one does grizzled better than Eastwood, and maybe no other actor has made as much of an acting mark by squinting a lot. Million Dollar Baby is probably his best performance to date, though for a good while it sounds like Frank has something lodged in his throat (pride?). Frank has the greatest transformation, and Eastwood brilliantly understates each stop on the journey until landing in a vulnerable, emotionally needy place.

Freeman once again serves as a film’s gentle narrator. There isn’t a movie that can’t be made better by a Morgan Freeman performance. His give-and-take with Frank feels natural and casual to the point that it seems improvised on the spot. Freeman unloads some great monologues like he’s relishing every syllable, chief among them about how he lost his eye. It’s wonderful to watch such a great actor sink his teeth into ripe material and deliver a performance that may net him a long-awaited Oscar (I think he’s due, and likely so will the Academy).

For whatever reason, Eastwood is hitting a directing groove in his twilight years. First came Mystic River, an ordinary police whodunnit made exceptional by incredible acting. Now Eastwood follows up with Baby, an ordinary sports film made extraordinary by incredible acting. Hmmm, a pattern is forming. The cinematography is crisp and makes great use of light and shadow to convey emotion. Eastwood’s score is also appropriately delicate and somber. The boxing sequences are brief but efficient.

Million Dollar Baby is a very traditional story that is at times surprisingly ordinary. Maggie’s the scrappy underdog that just needs a chance, Frank’s the old timer that needs to find personal redemption, and Scrap?s the wise old black man. Once again, an old curmudgeon takes on a rookie and in the process has their tough facade melt away as the inevitable victories pile up. Million Dollar Baby is a very familiar story but then again most boxing tales are fairly the same in scope.

What eventually separates Million Dollar Baby from the pack is its third act twist. You think you know where Eastwood’s film is headed, especially given the well-worn terrain, but you have no clue where this story will wind up. The plot turn deepens the characters and their relationships to each other in very surprising ways. You may be flat-out shocked how much you’ve found yourself caring for the people onscreen. It almost seems like Eastwood and company have used the familiar rags-to-riches underdog drama to sucker punch an audience into Million Dollar Baby‘s final 30 minutes. We’re transported into an uncomfortable and challenging position, and Eastwood won’t let an audience turn away.

Million Dollar Baby is not the colossal masterpiece that critics have been drooling over. For one thing, the group of antagonists is not nearly as textured as our trio of leads. They’re actually more stock roles that further enforce the ordinary story of Million Dollar Baby. Maggie’s trailer trash family is lazy unsupportive batch of stereotypes. The evil female boxing champ just happens to be a German who doesn’t mind playing dirty. One of the boxers at Frank’s gym is an arrogant showboat just waiting to be nasty while the teacher’s back is turned. Million Dollar Baby excels at showing depth and humanity with its lead trio, yet it seems if you aren’t in that circle you’re doomed to wade in the shallow end.

Eastwood shows that great acting and great characters you love can elevate a common framework. The package may be similar to a lot of films before about scrappy underdogs, but Million Dollar Baby lacks comparison in its genre when it comes to its enthralling acting and characters. The father-daughter bond between Frank and Maggie is heartwarming. The final reveal of what her Gaelic boxing name means may just bring tears to your eyes. The results are a very fulfilling movie going experience, albeit one that regrettably may not live up to such hype.

Million Dollar Baby has been showered with heapings of praise and become a formidable Oscar contender. The story treads familiar waters but its outstanding acting and deep and humane characters elevate the material. The film can’t match the hyperbole of critics but Million Dollar Baby is an ordinary but greatly satisfying ride led by compelling acting. The film hums with professionalism and seems to just glide when everything comes together magnificently, particularly in that last 30 minutes. Eastwood is hitting an artistic stride and it’s actually exciting to see what Clint will do next. Million Dollar Baby may not be a first round knockout but it definitely wins by decision.

Nate’s Grade: B+

About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at PictureShowPundits.com (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on December 25, 2004, in 2004 Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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