Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Million Dollar Baby

Directed by Clint Eastwood.
2004. Rated PG-13, 132 minutes.
Hilary Swank
Clint Eastwood
Morgan Freeman
Jay Baruchel
Anthony Mackie
Brian F. O'Byrne
Margo Martindale
Michael Pena
Mike Colter
Lucia Rijker
Riki Lindhome

Maggie (Swank) has been boxing for a while and is looking for a trainer to help her learn the proper techniques and possibly take her to the big time. She walks into the gym owned by grizzled vet cut-man turned trainer Frankie Dunn (Eastwood). Dunn manages and trains Willie Jones (Colter), an up-and-coming fighter on the cusp of a title shot. The place is actually kept running by Eddie "Scrap Iron" Dupris (Freeman), Frank's bestest buddy. Frank tells Maggie he doesn't train girls and tries to ignore her. However, after Willie moves on to a new manager, and at Eddie's urging, Frank reluctantly takes her on.

Right from the beginning, Million Dollar Baby establishes that every relationship it depicts will be a battle of wills. The most prominent of these is that of Maggie and Frank. Frank is the immovable object trying to stave off Maggie's irresistible force. Irresistible being the key word. She is a big ball of warm and fuzzy. Frank is not. The differences don't end there. As a man whose been burned on numerous occasions by the sport he loves, Frank is overly cautious. His gruff exterior belies the fact he's deathly afraid of taking chances. this is something Maggie has no issues with. Being careful appears not to be in her nature. Consequences be damned, she's going after what she wants with both fists flying. It stems from her one true fear, ending up with a bushel of children and grandchildren while being dependent on welfare, like her mother (Martindale). I don't recall even a mention of her father. This makes seeking out Frank's expertise a matter of gravity, not logical thinking. Frank is similarly pulled. He sees qualities in her that he wishes he had. More importantly, she becomes a stand-in for his estranged daughter. Whatever happened in the past between he and his own child is something for which he desperately wants to atone. Maybe Maggie holds the key to his salvation. She is sure he holds the key to hers. It is their separate needs that binds them. However, Frank resists as best he can. This makes the exchanges between the two cinematic gold as each plays their role perfectly. Swank deservedly took home an Oscar for her work, here.

As I've alluded to, Frank and Maggie's battles is hardly the only one playing out before us. There is Frank and Willie, Frank and Eddie, and also Maggie against her own mother. Perhaps most intriguing, aside from the main event between our two leads, involves two seemingly expendable characters: Shawrelle (Mackie) and Danger (Baruchel). Shawrelle is a pro fighter who hasn't been terribly successful. Around the gym, though, he's a motor-mouthed bully. Danger is his exact opposite. He dreams of becoming a champion, but has no boxing ability whatsoever. He just hangs around the gym pantomiming his imaginary victory over fight legend Thomas Hearns. He's also Shawrelle's favorite target. On the surface, it's an extraneous, if fun, subplot. Juxtaposed with our protagonist, it becomes the breathing embodiment of the journey Maggie's spirit makes. The name Danger represents the arduous road she chooses to travel. They share highs and lows. her real life triumphs prove as fleeting as Danger's made up ones. Their defeats work in concert to illustrate the point Eddie makes to Danger after she suffers a very real and painful loss: "Anybody can lose one fight." This leads us back to Maggie. We know that she loses one fight. The question is does she lose the fight after that, as well. Whether she does isn't easily discerned. It could be argued both ways. Even if you accept her as victorious in the end, you know it's not an indisputable fact.

Eastwood's direction holds it all together in a tight package that never rushes, but also doesn't meander. It moves from setup to action to climax at a wonderful pace. the entire time it is pulling us deeper into Frank and Maggie's world. there is one little, but troubling plot hole for fight fans that might turn some off to the movie as a whole. It's the way our heroes first meet. Given all we're told of her skill level a short while later, it makes no sense. However, it's small enough that the removal and/or changing of just a few lines of dialogue would fix the issue. The bigger problem for those of us with a decent amount of boxing knowledge are the fight scenes. The choreography of them is just horrible in that all-too-Hollywood way. Each pugilist takes turns beating their opponent from one side of the ring to the other with seemingly endless successions of landed punches. Either that, or someone gets knocked in about five seconds. It just doesn't work like that. It's the one artificiality that snaps me out of the movie on several occasions. Thankfully, the narrative snags me from the brink of tuning out each time and swaddles me in layers of its fabric. Once we get beyond all the fight scenes, it never lets me go.


  1. Good review Dell. Was really moved by this one. Also, I liked how Eastwood doesn't get too schmaltzy with the point he's trying to get across, nor with what he's trying to say about his characters. They're just normal people, trying to get by in anyway that they possibly can.

    1. Eastwood hit just about every note perfectly this time, didn't he? I don't think it's his best but it's not far off, either.

  2. Nice review here. You have me thinking about the fighting scenes in this movie, which I've always found to be authentic. I heard that Eastwood and Co. didn't storyboard or rehearse any of the boxing scenes beforehand. They just showed up on the day and went for it. Which could help explain why they occasionally have that punch-punch-land-land ease to them (which, I agree, is not entirely realistic). But I definitely don't take issue with how Maggie and Frankie meet. I fought on undercards when I boxed, and most all of the main fighters were wildly better than I ever could've been. So I thought that played as real, but hey, what's important is that we both really like this movie. Still so pleased that it won Best Picture.

    1. If you've fought on undercards and are ok with how they meet I'm happy to retract my comments. As fat as the fight scenes themselves, they're really my one beef with the movie. Otherwise, it's a wonderful film.

  3. Excellent review. I actually just watched this movie for the first time tonight, and was extremely moved on the story. There aren't many movies that make me think "what would I do in that situation?" If I was in Swank's position, I would've chosen not to be hooked up to machines for the rest of my life. On the other hand, if I was in Eastwood's position, I most likely wouldn't be able to pull the plug like what was asked of him, seems strange saying that really.

    1. Thanks. Your position doesn't sound strange, at all. It's a real conundrum. It's one of those things where most of us think we know what we'll do when put into that situation, but really won't until we are.


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