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Movies: Million Dollar Baby

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.

Posted on February 28, 2005 to Movies


Nice review...and you might like to know that there is a small underground of folks like you (myself included) who didn't quite understand all the hoo-hah over Mystic River. You are not alone.

Posted by: Karan on March 2, 2005 9:59 PM

Was that a good review, or was it a rhetorical exercise? Methinks, you attempted to 'go beyond the headlines' but then recanted, changed course, quickly hopped on the good foot. Then you made sure to satisfy those of us, like you, who read the first and last paragraphs of movie reviews. I have to tell ya, in the middle I wasn't sure where you were headed. Good thing all of that is behind me now. :-)

Posted by: dingo on March 2, 2005 10:55 PM

Diggstown. Best, most overlooked, boxing movie ever.

Posted by: Slurpy on March 2, 2005 11:07 PM

I'm with Slurpy. Diggstown was awesome. I love conman movies, so the combo was insurmountable.

Posted by: rob cockerham on March 3, 2005 12:11 AM

Did you really see Rocky for the first time a few weeks ago?

Having missed it this long, how did it happen that in 2005 you developed an interest in the early works of Sylvester Stallone?

Posted by: alkali on March 3, 2005 5:47 AM

I've been rewatching a lot of the films I liked as a kid, to see if they still hold up over time. Last year I rewatched Tron, Ghostbusters, Radiers of the Lost Ark, and this year I picked up Rocky. About a third of the way throught it I realized that Rocky didn't qualiy for this project, because I'd never seen it before. I thought I had, but all my memories were of the sequel, Mr. T, and Badass Russian Dude.

Posted by: Matthew on March 3, 2005 7:14 AM

Million Dollar Baby is an awesome film, period. Eastwood's win as best director is great. Look at the way everything in this movie serves the story. No dazzling camera effects, no music to speak of; the story is first and foremost at the center. In my view, it's been a while since i saw a RECENT movie engage in the art of storytelling at that level.
Now, think about all those "daring" camera moves in the Aviator. Do those serve the story? No. Scorsese only distract from the film with that kind of "dazzling" moves.

Posted by: Mario on March 3, 2005 7:27 AM

Ditto Diggstown. Now I need to go rent it. It's been too long since I've seen it play on TNT.

Posted by: Skane on March 3, 2005 8:48 AM

I've been rewatching a lot of the films I liked as a kid, to see if they still hold up over time.

Eccentric media consumption that you haven't blogged? Are you actually looking to get busted by the blogpolice?

Vaguely apropos of your project, once when I had a week between semesters in college and nothing to do, I watched a bunch of the films that all my friends saw when I was a kid but that I had somehow missed, either because of parental edict or otherwise. Meatballs: sucked. Stripes: about three good moments, otherwise lame.

Posted by: alkali on March 3, 2005 8:51 AM

So wait a minute... you wrote a review recommending the movie only to people who haven't read the review?

Don't worry, I'm not complaining I ignored the spoiler warning because I didn't plan on watching it anyway. I'm just saying, that's a little perverse.

Posted by: nebulawindphone on March 3, 2005 9:14 AM

That's exactly what I did, yes.

It's a bit of a wierd situation, because I really enjoyed the film. But I only enjoyed it because I went in cold; had I not, I think my estimation of the film would have been a lot lower (although I'm not going to see it a second time and test this hypothesis). Since I think most people who haven't seen film yet nonetheless know more about it than I did, I can't in good conscience recommended it to everyone.

Posted by: Matthew on March 3, 2005 9:25 AM

This column nails the problems with MDB:


The crucial event of the movie is an utter contrivance--just plain wrong, and so it, along with the many other bogus elements--the cartoonishly white-trash family (the pure and perfect Maggie is related to THEM?), etc. etc.--neutralizes the "drama" between Maggie and Frankie.

Maggie won the fight---the big bad East Berlin prostitute would have been disqualified for what she did. Heck, she would have been disqualified for what she did in the first round.

Posted by: John on March 3, 2005 9:57 AM

Say what you will about Clint's directing ability, but his westerns are masterful. I thought MDB was well-made but (as with Mystic River) the moral ambiguity was somewhat unsatisfying. If the whole movie was going to be about moral ambiguity, that would be one thing. But it was sort of tacked on to the end (in both pictures). Ultimately, I thought "Girlfight" was a much more enjoyable boxing/relationship movie, warts and all, and it has the added bonus of being a coming-of-age story about a girl, for a change.

And I know it's been pointed out elsewhere, but I don't think Morgan Freeman has played a real human being since Easy Reader.

Posted by: Kim on March 3, 2005 11:34 AM

I was going to link to the same Skip Bayless article that John did above. When the crucial scenes are so hard to swallow, it just trivializes the rest of the movie for me. Not to mention I thought it was just plain mediocre anyway. The worst part for me was that I had just come out of a theater-going hiatus thinking that I could pick up some movie steam with this one. Nyet. Back to Sopranos DVD's and GTA for me.

Posted by: Chris on March 3, 2005 11:42 AM

I haven't seen Million Dollar Baby, but I couldn't agree more about Mystic River. It was not a good movie. The acting was fine, but am I the only one who thinks playing a tragic role, well, tragically is not the same as playing it well? It's like playing a mentally-disabled person: just doing the role at all somehow guarantees you a bunch of great-performance reviews. It's like cheating. Or something.

Posted by: Feaverish on March 3, 2005 12:21 PM

The Bayless review seems most concerned w/ displaying the author's boxing knowledge. Surely an authentic boxing movie would have a limited appeal--and a limited goal. I for one don't want to know more about boxing. Big Hollywood movies take liberties w/ the truth--they're not documentaries. It's hard for viewers (like Matthew)to see a movie like "MDB" after it has generated hype--who isn't sick of it now? It wasn't the greatest movie in the world in 2004. "Finding Neverland" was just as good, in my opinion, even though it had its own problems. But it was a MOVIE--an experience. "MDB" also has many parallels to "Unforgiven" and other Eastwood movies. It's interesting to see all of Eastwood's movies, in the end, be about a man making tough decisions and living w/ them. Not many other director right now make such consistently solid movies.

Posted by: dawn on March 3, 2005 1:34 PM

I'm a big boxing fan, which usually keeps me from watching boxing movies because the fight scenes are so ridiculously fake. It's like my father, an ex-navy man, watching a movie like Top Gun and complaining the whole time because "that jet sounds NOTHING like that in real life."

On the other hand, I'm bored to tears by baseball. Can't stand to watch it. But I love me some baseball movies.

I've yet to see Million Dollar Baby. And yeah, what most others here are saying about Mystic River... I've never had anything good to say about that film.

Posted by: Bruce on March 3, 2005 3:07 PM

Don't forget The Goonies!

Posted by: Tinabug on March 3, 2005 3:34 PM

As Mario above (O Mario Above!) points out, everything in MDB is fanatically dedicated to serving the story. It's a shame the story weren't a lot better. It's a bit like praising an IHOP for being so dedicated to shoving slop into our mouths. You wish the slop were less sloppy.

Posted by: palinode on March 3, 2005 5:39 PM

FYI, I _did_ know the twist before going in and didn't enjoy the movie very much. The sentimentality that I guess snuck up on you if you didn't know the twist... well, if you _do_ know the twist, it all seems more than a bit much.

And, Jesus, can't they just let Morgan Freeman be a real character and not cast him _again_ as The Impossibly Wise Narrator?

Posted by: Larry on March 3, 2005 7:10 PM

I loved the first half of MDB. But I'm a nurse, and I'm easily distracted by medical scenes that don't ring true. Why were all the hospital halls dark? Where were all the nurses? How come no alarms went off? I wound up rolling my eyes during the entire second half. However, my non-medical mom and sister, who saw it with me, loved every minute.

Posted by: Lauriebob on March 4, 2005 8:17 AM

"And, Jesus, can't they just let Morgan Freeman be a real character and not cast him _again_ as The Impossibly Wise Narrator?"

I'm convinced its just because he has the perfect voice for it. I haven't seen Mystic River or MDB so I have nothing further to say.

Posted by: rabbit on March 4, 2005 9:26 AM

I know what you mean, Laurie. After the ambulance ride (fly over, drive back), though, she was in a nursing home, not a hospital. Still, what kind of place has unsecured doors that are unlocked all night?

Posted by: Tinabug on March 4, 2005 12:12 PM

What does "pachique" mean?

Posted by: pachinko on March 4, 2005 12:48 PM

poor morgan freeman. how many roles could he possibly be offered as an elderly black gentleman? as it is, he's leaving none for james earl jones. and at least he does his best to bring personality and edge to them.

i agree that MR was overrated, though well-acted. the only aspect of MR i preferred to MDB was the absence of clint himself: that meant i didn't have to cringe at the sight of The Forehead. it's been stretched back and pulled so taut you could project movies onto it.

Posted by: ester on March 4, 2005 12:56 PM

What does "pachique" mean?

It means I misspelled pastiche.

Posted by: Matthew on March 4, 2005 1:07 PM