If you were to believe the other, less Ruthless critics on the web, Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby stands tall as one of the best films of the year, and just as surely one of the director’s finest efforts. It is a work of supreme brilliance, they cry; so moving, so effortless, and so hauntingly beautiful that nothing else comes as close to being a complete work. Denied festival showings and seeming to come out of nowhere, the film is taking the nation by storm, collecting year-end prizes and all the right kind of Oscar buzz. At this point, it has practically taken home the top honor. I’m a fan of Eastwood’s work; he maintains a lean, easygoing style that mirrors the man himself, still rugged and vibrant in his mid-seventies. He’s just as confident this time out, as he never wastes a shot, keeps things moving forward without distractions, and continues to surprise us with the camera. And yet, and with deep regret, I must announce my disappointment. Far from the masterpiece it has been proclaimed, this is nothing more than a cheap B-movie with an A-list director; a string of clichés and predictable plot twists so nakedly obvious that one wonders how everyone involved kept a straight face. In fact, take away the big names and you’d have a straight-to-video non-entity that would never see the light of any self-respecting critic’s top ten. Given the praise, one would think we were experiencing a cinematic renaissance; a time where film had an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start anew. But from where I’m sitting, I’m watching the bruised corpse of Rocky dance around the ring with the ghosts of Somebody Up There Likes Me, Champion, and Body & Soul. Shit, even The Champ had a ringside seat for a few rounds.
Am I being unfair? Let me lay all the cards on the table and let you be the judge. Eastwood is Frankie Dunn, a crusty but benign old salt of a man who owns a shell of a gym (called “The Hit Pit”), who once worked as a world-class cut-man. He spends his days with up-and-comers and his old pal “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a one-eyed boxing veteran who lives on site and remembers days gone by. One day, a scrappy young lady named Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) comes to town looking for a manager. She’s po’ white trash, but fighting is the only thing that makes her happy. Frankie reacts with macho defensiveness and refuses to train her. She continues to hang around, which prompts a reluctant lesson from Frankie. She works hard, doesn’t give up, and eventually wins the old man’s heart. After all, Scrap-Iron senses some natural talent in the gal, and this may be Frankie’s last shot at redemption. Can you believe this shit? Every scene, well-framed and lush to be sure, plays out like a wind-up toy, destined to fill every need of the screenplay.
And then there’s Frankie’s gym. There’s the “mascot” of course, some dimwitted dude called “Danger” Barch, who screams about fighting Thomas Hearns and who makes an appearance whenever we need comic relief. There are the resident bullies who pick on Danger, as it is vital that a musty old gym have some boy who’s “funny in the head” and manages to get his ass kicked, which then prompts the intervention of Scrap-Iron, who lands a great punch, saves the day, and reawakens the fighter within. There’s Frankie’s office, lined with old photos and dusty memories, and of course, nameless boxers looking for their big break. Even Frankie’s current project (that is, before he takes on Maggie) has his big scene where he drops Frankie (“You didn’t give me a shot at the title”) and hires a slimy new manager, who of course gets the young man that shot in the Garden while Frankie gets a one-way ticket to palookaville. It should surprise no one that as Frankie’s life seems on the verge of a complete breakdown, there’s also an estranged daughter who receives his letters every week, only to be marked “return to sender.” There’s everything but the speech where Frankie says, “I wasn’t much of a husband or a father….too busy with the drink and all.”
Turns out Maggie is one helluva fighter, a quick study who manages to knock out nearly every opponent in the first round. These early fights come fast and furious, as Maggie needs but one punch to score instant victory. Still, they’re marred by the obligatory dialogue where Frankie tells Maggie she’s doing something wrong, she instantly corrects it, and slaughters the other women with even more confidence. But off in the distance, we hear the rumblings of some German ex-prostitute-turned-boxer named Billie the Blue Bear, who “fights dirty” and takes no prisoners. You’d have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to know that her tactics would factor into the final fight with Maggie, which itself is but a negotiation away. Maggie made her way through the ranks, toured Europe, and finally secured a title fight in Las Vegas with the Blue Bear, so she’s earned it, by god. The final showdown has everything but an American flag-wrapped James Brown making a grand entrance, although there were bagpipes. Scrap-Iron stays away to be the one who watches it on television, while Frankie stays by Maggie’s side. The fight is about even, Blue Bear takes the upper hand, Maggie gets some additional pointers that push her ahead, and then Blue Bear gets riled up, forcing her to punch Maggie after the bell. But Frankie had already pulled out the stool, so Maggie falls on it, breaks her neck, and when we next see her, she’s in a hospital bed, paralyzed from the neck down. Are you kidding me? I’ve seen soap operas with more credibility. But if Blue Bear is Ivan Drago, where’s Mick? Surely not Frankie. He’s crusty, but not that crusty.
The final scenes are by the book (sigh), which again forces me to conclude that Eastwood sent envelopes stuffed with cash to all the major critics he could find. Come now — Maggie’s trashy family comes to the hospital room to try and secure her signature so that her money will be transferred to their hands? They did everything but tie the poor girl to the railroad tracks. After a few scenes of bedsores, rehabilitation, and strained conversation, Maggie asks Frankie to help her die. He has a crisis, seeks the church, prays a little, sheds a few tears, then marches to the hospital with enough juice to drop a horse. I admire the turn, certainly, where the measure of a character’s morality is in how he helps another human being die with dignity (Eastwood could have turned to other, more “hopeful” solutions), but it seemed to come too late in the game to salvage the picture. The characters failed to generate any lasting connection throughout, as the film didn’t allow them to make any real choices. The assisted-suicide does in fact rise to the level of a genuine decision — hard-fought and thought through — but we never doubted for a moment that such a scene would eventually arrive.
As tired and perfunctory as most of the film seemed, the boxing sequences were among the most realistic ever filmed. These weren’t well-oiled machines who failed to protect their faces from brutality; these were bleeding, breaking, easily felled human beings who felt pain early and often. And the fights, being so abrupt and sloppy, were refreshingly in direct opposition to the World War feel of so many cinematic bouts. These aren’t inhuman titans in the ring, but tough kids who catch their breath and often seem unable to go on. And hey, the performances do have a lived-in quality to them; an authentic approach that keeps things afloat where lesser mortals would have killed the project within twenty minutes. Eastwood, Freeman, and Swank do such marvelous work as actors that it pains me to blast the less enlightened qualities of the film, but fair is fair. In many ways, we can exempt Eastwood, as some other jerkoff penned the thing. Clint simply squeezed more blood from that turnip than could ever be expected. Fine, this is more than a film about boxing, but we know these people already, far too well in fact. Not because they’re “us,” necessarily, but because they keep stopping by the house again and again, uninvited and unwanted.