Million Dollar Baby (2004) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and language
Running Time: 137 min.

Cast: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, Brian F. O'Byrne, Jay Baruchel, Lucia Rijker, Mike Colter. Anthony Mackie, Margo Martindale, Riki Lindhome, Bruce MacVittie
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Paul Haggis (based on stories contained in the book, "Rope Burns", by F.X. Toole (aka Jerry Boyd))
Review published January 26, 2005

As a director, Clint Eastwood (Space Cowboys, True Crime) has sometimes been down, but never for the count, and if you consider the last two films he has directed, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, you might even conclude he has hit an all new peak, even in his 70s.  Some time ago, in the review of Clint's 2002 misfire, Blood Work, I remarked that Clint just didn't have what it took to bring the high heat anymore, employing a lackadaisical approach that made his movies drag.  I now realize that comment was right within the context of my point, but I was failing to see that I was missing something more important.  Clint isn't lackadaisical at all, he merely sees interesting elements in things that may or may not push forward the story.  While some may call this dragging, it occurs to me now after seeing two of the better films of the last couple of years that Clint Eastwood, the director, sees things which most of us would not, bringing out a richness in detail in throwaway characters and side stories he chooses not to fully explore.  In an Eastwood movie, we don't enter a movie, but a world, with its own personalities and sense of time, and to properly appreciate them, they needn't adjust to us, since it is his story to tell -- we must adjust to his world.

In this world exists Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), a longtime boxing cutman and sometimes manager, who has spent his years in his Los Angeles gym developing new talent.  He suffers from loneliness, attending mass every day and atoning for a life he feels he has botched in some way, with a daughter who has been estranged for many years, unwilling to open any correspondence from him begging for forgiveness for whatever misdeeds he may have committed.  Enter Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank, The Core), a 31-year-old novice with big dreams of becoming a professional boxer, who wants Frankie to be her trainer and manager, something he is dead set against.  Stubbornness and determination keeps Maggie coming back and working out for hours, until finally, Frankie does come around somewhat to show her the ropes.  Although she is already old (for a boxer) and raw, her mental condition and sheer will sees her achieve success in the face of challenging odds, although Frankie wants to let her go to another manager.  The two form an unlikely pair, but somehow they feed off of each other, each a representation of things they are missing in each others lives, forming a bond that goes beyond a mere manager and fighter.

As I am writing this, I realize that Million Dollar Baby, like Mystic River, has received many accolades and critics awards, inevitably finding its way into top 10 lists across the board.  While I can certainly understand the praise, I feel that, also like Mystic River, that Million Dollar Baby is a good film with great moments, and not quite up to the level of greatness some have lavishly bestowed upon it.  I dislike having to even mention any of this, because it comes off as if I am giving this film a negative review, and I am definitely not.  It's a good film, and I recommend it to all.  I just recommend less than stellar expectations going in.

Although it is a sports film, at its heart, like the best of films around sports, it is about something more.  This isn't a movie just about a woman's determination to be the champion, but to prove herself prove to her family she is worth prove to Frankie she is something special.  Frankie has nothing to prove, reluctant to even try, but through the eyes of this new and enthusiastic talent, he begins to believe in something again.  What it all boils down to is that no matter how much is going against you, how many people tell you you are too old, too weak, or too undisciplined, that you can still achieve your dreams if you work very hard and never lose sight of the prize.  Life, if nothing else, exists for each person's realization, and it is better to put all your mind, body, and soul in seeing your dreams become reality than to spend all your days looking back at what could have been.  Maggie is the fulfillment of dreams, while Frankie is the one looking back in regret, but even at his ripe age, he can make his dreams a reality.

Without spoiling the film, there is a major shift which occurs at some point that turns this into a very different sort of film altogether.  Some viewers may not be satisfied with the turn of events, while others will find that it further enhances it.  At the time of the shift, I was disappointed that the film had to change, but now that I look back on it I realize that I carry away much more from Million Dollar Baby because of it than if it had been a straight-forward boxing film through and through.  There are many themes that Eastwood had been developing since the beginning, and the changes drive the themes home better than a rise to the top of the boxing world ever could.

Eastwood is terrific, both as actor and director, and Freeman (The Big Bounce) is every bit as great as you expect.  However, it is Swank's spunky performance that sells it, as we want her to succeed with every fiber of our being, never wanting even one punch to land on her.  It isn't just good, it's triumphant. 

My review ends here, like the movie, differently than I would have anticipated.  Now that I have sat and thought about the film, I've decided that it is indeed a great film, and not just good as I initially deemed it.  It is only now, as I am wrapping up my feelings, that the weight of its themes has finally sunk in.  I was wrong.  Any movie that causes me to think and feel as much as this one has certainly merits all it earns.  I look back on my review and wonder if I should alter it to match my current feelings, but on further reflection, I think it's better as it is.  It's only fitting, as Million Dollar Baby is a movie that I initially wished I could change, but also looking back, I realize, it's also far better as it is.

Qwipster's rating:

2005 Vince Leo