There has been nothing but huge buzz surrounding Academy Award winning director Clint Eastwood’s latest film. Is Million Dollar Baby worth all the critical hype? I don’t think so. I can see why its getting the attention, it has a great cast and an original way of telling the same story we’ve seen in just about every boxing movie ever, but it’s originality sucker punches you in the face and you barely have time to recover.
When golden boy Big Willie Little (Mike Colter) jumps ship with a manager out to find him better deal and a title shot, his grizzled old boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) has better to do than sit in his gym reading Gælic poetry and bicker with ex-boxer Eddie “Scarp-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman). An up and coming female fighter, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), attempts to tempt Frankie back into the training game but the old school Dunn refuses to train “girls”. Maggie persists, and through some encouragement from Eddie, Dunn finally takes on the trailer park vixen and molds her into a contender. But as all seems to be going on the smooth path to greatness, a shocking blow halts Frankie and Maggie’s journey; leaving the two in shambles and Eddie left to pick up the pieces.
As much as foxy boxing hasn’t been a real big subject for major studio films, Million Dollar Baby isn’t the first, nor is it the best. For my money and the 2000 indie Girlfight surpasses this awards pandering melodrama. It’s hard to be original with boxing movies. If the fighter wins then it is predictable, if the fighter loses then it gets shut down by Rocky comparisons. So when this flick takes the typical boxing movie ending and turns it up on its head, it is liable to cause a stir. The performances are consistent, so the ending does work...but it is very hard to recover once the third act begins.
On the performance front, Swank is great in the end, but initially she does the same southern trailer trash thing she’s done countless times before. Clint Eastwood, while his direction is pretty strong, I can’t help but wonder if his motivation for “Frankie” was to think Swank had kooties. The look of utter disdain on his face and outright disgust - the trademark squinty Clint look - when he refers to “Maggie” as a “girl” dozens of times in the film comes off very awkward; especially when Maggie is 32 years old. As far as Morgan Freeman goes, since he narrates the film I got too much of a Shawshank vibe off it, but as the voiceovers disappear and you watch how his “Eddie” interacts with fellow boxers in the gym, it’s pretty amazing.
The majority, if not all, of this film is about redemption and forgiveness. When Frankie’s not in the gym he’s at church defensively testing the priest’s limits while seeking guidance concerning his troubled family. Maggie wants nothing more than to save her family from their Welfare trailer park, and when she does is given no thanks. Eddie wanted to retire with one hundred and ten fights under his belt, but was left blind in one eye after his one hundred and ninth courtesy of Frankie’s guidance. All three are looking forgive, be forgiven, and redeem themselves to get more out of life while they are still here. This element I liked. The characters all have their motives firmly in places and they all have issues dealing with them.
With five Golden Globe nominations under its belt, Million Dollar Baby may or may not impact the rest of the Awards season. The only deserved nod goes to Freeman, who might have a tough chance against front runner Thomas Haden Church (Sideways). Overall Million Dollar Baby just isn’t the big dramatic, cinematic masterpiece it is being hailed as. I’m sorry. Clint’s opus from last year, the similarly awards friendly Mystic River, runs circles around this. It’s worth a rental a few months down the line, but don’t beat down the door to see it immediately.
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