November 9, 2015
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Grade: 61/100

Director: Clint Eastwood
Stars: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman

What it's about. An acclaimed boxing drama. Clint Eastwood is a veteran trainer who owns a boxing gym. Morgan Freeman is his laconic sidekick. Eastwood is disappointed when his most promising boxer (Mike Colter) dumps him to sign a title bout. He is left with Hilary Swank, a thirtyish wannabe female boxer with no discernible skills.

Because it is a movie, Swank improves exponentially under Eastwood's personal tutelage, and is soon knocking out all her opponents in the first round. Eastwood, who has a lifetime habit of over-protecting his fave fighters, is obligated to give her a title shot against the champ Lucia Rijker, even though she is the queen of cheap shots and other dirty fighter tactics.

The bout ends in tragedy, and poor Eastwood and Swank are left with only unhappy choices. The film becomes a significant downer, in The Champ (1979) fashion, but mercy killer Eastwood does pull off a Shawshank Redemption-style Great Escape, including Freeman's admiring narration, except that there is no final frame man-love hug on a tropical island beach.

How others will see it. A box office hit with a long theatrical run, Million Dollar Baby was also a critical success. It was nominated for six major Oscars, winning two, Best Picture and Best Actress. At, the movie has a huge 440K user votes and an extremely high user rating of 8.1 out of 10. The ratings are highest (8.5) among viewers under 18, but taper off only modestly (8.0) among viewers over age 30. The majority enjoy the growing pseudo father-daughter relationship between curmudgeon Eastwood and chipper, can-do Swank.

How I felt about it. I have watched plenty of boxing matches, and I am not convinced, to any degree, by the scenes in this movie. The dirty Las Vegas fighter, Blue Bear, punches Swank when the latter is on the canvass with her head raised a foot. There is no way that the referee would not see this, and immediately disqualify Blue Bear. This goes double for punching Swank from behind, and knocking her head into her stool. And why would the stool be there before the fighter reaches the corner?

Swank has a long series of first round knockouts. To accomplish this, you must have tremendous power, a la George Foreman. Swank is no George Foreman. The storyline is bogus. It's even more silly that Mo Chuisle is misspelled, and that Swank doesn't know what it means despite crowds chanting this throughout many of her fights. Doesn't she ever get interviewed? Here she is, winning all her fights in one round and contending for the world title, and the only person she ever talks to is Clint Eastwood?

I understand that Clint Eastwood is a Republican, but could he possibly portray poor Southern whites any closer to trash? They are presented exactly as the G.O.P. would frame them: tattooed, unemployed, ungrateful, selfish, scheming, cheating, and pumping out babies.

And we are to believe that Swank travels cross-country to leave her hometown and family for Los Angeles so that she can hang out in Eastwood's struggling gym and hope that he will train her as a fighter. Do they not have fighter gyms in the South?

As for Eastwood's disappearing act after his mercy killing: he can't use credit cards, and he can't have much cash on hand. What is he going to do, especially at his age? Wash dishes at a diner? Won't he be easily recognized as a famous trainer on the run from a murder? He might as well pull a Bernie Madoff, plead guilty, and go to prison.

Then there's Danger (Jay Baruchel), a moron who could only exist in a movie. In real life, he could only survive as long as his mother keeps him at home as a pet.

I haven't brought up the worst of it yet: elderly, one-eyed Morgan Freeman, who does nothing but mope about the gym and can't possibly be in shape, knocks out, with one hand, a young, experienced, and physically fit fighter, in thirty seconds. It is a scene more appropriate for a ten-year-old's fantasies than a Best Picture Oscar winner.

Some people wonder why Freeman is in the movie. It is to provide narration to build up Clint Eastman's character as a bigger-than-life man; the same job that Freeman performed so reliably for Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption. Since Freeman's home is the gym, he really ought to purchase a television set with a screen larger than 9 inches. Particularly since he can afford HBO.

While the film is a disappointment, it isn't bad. Eastwood's hissing delivery, Freeman's gravitas, and Swank's pluck and anxiety are all effective acting techniques. But a Best Picture Oscar? At least it's better than the previous year's aptly titled Paul Haggis "masterwork", Crash.