I don’t like sports films. Never really have. But to say Million Dollar Baby is a sports flick is to say Jerry Bruckheimer makes romance movies. You don’t have to know anything about boxing to get the intensity Hilary Swank brings to the screen. And Eastwood knows you don’t have to see every wrinkle or muscle flex in a person’s face to understand a character. Most of the movie relies on what is hidden and what isn’t said. One thing, however, is clear: be prepared for a knockout.
As most everyone knows by now, Hilary Swank’s character is a wannabe female boxer, penniless, and desperate for some training. Clint Eastwood’s character is, of course, a trainer that doesn’t work with girls. They manage to get it together and Swank fights in some fights. What’s beautiful here is the characterization. Just when I was thinking Swank’s character was a little too naïve or innocent, her past jumps to the present and you see her character’s history in full display. The same goes for Eastwood, a person can think his character is a rotten jerk from the start, but underneath it all, as the story unfolds, you find a man that is weaker on the inside than ever expected.
Now, as for Morgan Freeman, much like Spiderman and his spidey-sense, I confess I have a "Morgan Meter". If the meter hits ten, I know Morgan Freeman is in the movie and I’ll like it. If the meter is on zero, then Freeman isn’t in it and it’s a toss up as to how good a film is going to be. This method works on every film I’ve ever seen. You should try it. I don’t know anyone that’s been disappointed by the Morgan-Meter. So, with Million Dollar Baby you can bet the Morgan Meter was pointing to ten. As a former boxer with a permanent injury, Freeman’s character is a little more removed from the situation but remains as a guardian over both Swank and Eastwood. The level of complexity between all the characters is amazing and is woven together in a wonderful way without pushing into tragedy or melodramatics. Much like life, every character (even minor ones) is given a past to either run from or perpetuate, and a circumstance to react to in the present.
Aside from the great work with characterization, I love the non-conventional lack of lighting on Eastwood’s part. He allows people to fall in and out of shadow as well as decides when to include the viewer in on a conversation and when to make you feel as though you are eavesdropping and only seeing a discussion from behind. His direction is outstanding and in the most positive complimentary way, I have to say, it almost goes unnoticed as you become wrapped up in the story. Thus, his job as director is well done.
There’s a reason Million Dollar Baby won four Academy Awards, because box office statistics don’t look good on a mantle. Eastwood, Swank, and Freeman deserve something to show for their work when it’s done right and appeals to a higher sense of self than the average thoughts of whether or not the McRib is back. Swank is not a sexy goddess of Hollywood here, constantly stopping filming in case her mascara has run. She plays a real woman, without any airbrushing; a woman who makes every strong choice in her life from the beginning of the movie until the end. Two thumbs up for no sex scenes. Two thumbs up for no explosions. Two thumbs up for making a movie worth watching and spending two hours of your life on. This is what more of Hollywood’s dollars should go into, to bring the world up a bit, not encourage the further decay of humanity just to make a quick buck.
For all the good I have to say about the movie, here’s one word for you about the DVD: disappointment. Aside from a theatrical trailer, there are only three extras that come with this movie. “Born to Fight” is a pretty good featurette with lots of side interviews with the actors, as well as real female boxer Lucia Rijker whose real life parallels the movie. Next, “Producers Round 15” is supposed to be a behind the scenes look, but turns out is really just a lot of boring discussion of how the script came about by a bunch of low talkers. I’m serious here. My TV volume goes up on a number scale and I usually watch DVDs around a fifteen or twenty, or five or six if the baby is asleep. For this extra alone I was on forty and still couldn’t tell you what they said. Now that’s just bad sound quality if you ask me.
Finally, “James Lipton Takes on Three” is the most stagnant and unenthusiastic interview of Eastwood, Swank, and Freeman I could ever imagine. About the only way to make this sit down look any more boring was if Lipton himself was playing a Gameboy the whole time. I don’t know if he was asking the wrong questions or if this was the fortieth take of the interview or what, but gee-wiz! The extras I want to see are about Swank’s training: what she ate, how much she trained, how many weeks it took, where, and with who - stuff like that! I want to see Freeman putting in his blue contact lens. I want to see the practice fights. I want to watch Eastwood and Freeman sitting together in a trailer practicing their most gravelly voices. And to top it all off, there is no audio commentary, and for a movie like this isn’t that what we all want?
Now, for the real kicker! This movie is being sold as a two-disc edition. The movie on one disc and the extras on the other, but all the extras put together don’t even last more than an hour! What’s the point of that? Without a commentary are they really telling us that a movie that’s a little more than two hours couldn’t possibly fit one more hour of extras on a disc with it? Are they kidding? Hell, Taxi had more extras than this (even if they sucked) and it was all on one horrible disc together. Is there no middle ground? Why don’t we all just go back to using Beta and get it over with!