February 28th, 2005
For a guy who has absolutely no interest in the sport of boxing, I sure loves me some boxing movies. Raging Bull, When We Were Kings, Southpaw. I saw Rocky for the first time a few weeks ago and thought it was fantastic.
So I was predisposed to like Million Dollar Baby — the “boxing movie” element of it, at any rate. At the same time, I didn’t have the highest of expectations for the film. I had been completely underwhelmed by Eastwood’s last film, Mystic River. Even while the critics raved, I couldn’t help but think that it was just a pastiche of scenes and characters from other, better mob movies, that, when paired with an over-long run time, made for a mediocre movie at best.
That’s pretty much all I knew about the movie when I entered the theater last week. And if that all you know about it now, do yourself a favor and skip the rest of this review and just go see it. But I find it almost impossible to believe that anyone can not know more, now that the film has up and won the Best Picture Oscar. So the rest of you, read on.
Maggie is thirty, from the wrong side of town park, certain that she wants to be boxer and certain that Frankie Dunn is the one who should train her. Frankie is seventy, owner of a boxing club, and certain of only one thing: he doesn’t want to train Maggie. But Maggie wins him over with perseverance and charm, and, with Frankie in her corner, begins an amazing ascent to the top of first her class, and then the sport of women’s boxing itself. meanwhile, the father-daughter bond between the two grows ever stronger.
Boxing movies like to pretend that they are really relationship movies, that the sparring is metaphor for the struggle we must all fight to communicate with others. But for most, this facade is fairly superficial. Million Dollar Baby turns out to be an honest-to-goodness relationship movie, even going so far as to drop the boxing analogy about two-thirds of the way through. I didn’t know this was going to happen, and even after it did I kept waiting for the boxing movie to resume. When it finally dawned on me that film had completely metmorphasized from one genre to another, I was pleasantly surprised, and walked out of the cinema thinking it had been one of the best movies I’d seen in a spell.
But here’s the thing, folks: I strongly suspect that if I’d known that this was going to be a relationship film from the get-go, I wouldn’t liked it nearly as much. I may have hated it, even. Because, I retrospect, it occurs to me that the whole thing was freighted down with lots and lots of cliched sentimental clap-trap, the sort of stuff you found in every relationship movie ever made. I even recognized this at the time, but, thinking that I was watching a boxing movie, gave it a pass — much as you might excuse the execrable love scenes in The Matrix: Reloaded, thinking, we’ll, it’s an adventure movie, not a romance. (The rest of Reloaded was, alas, inexcusable.) Were I to see Million Dollar Baby a second time (and I won’t), I’m guessing I would have much the same reaction to this film as I did to Mystic River: “I’ve seen all of this before, and Eastwood hasn’t improved it a smidgen.”
But all that is speculation. What I know for a fact is this: I expected to like Million Dollar Baby because it was a boxing movie, and wound up loving it because it was not. I’m hesitant to recommended it to anyone who knows more about it than I did going in (e.g., anyone who read this whole review), but if you are one of those people who (like me) just reads the first paragraph and last line of reviews to avoid spoiling movies you have yet to see, check this one out.