DVD Review of Million Dollar Baby

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/16/05


  The DVD of Million Dollar Baby recapitulates the film it contains- a whole lot of nothing done way too long. The DVD has two discs, yet almost no extras of note. Disc One has the film (sans any commentaries), and a meager single trailer. Disc Two has three meager featurettes that do not even run an hour. That’s it. As for the film- it’s bad. Really bad. Not quite as bad as the all-time worst films ever to win major awards (Monster, Titanic, etc.), but still bad. The problem is that director Clint Eastwood simply does not have a clue as to what constitutes good storytelling. Here’s the whole film- a white trash chick boxer wind the heart of a crusty old trainer, who guides her to a shot at the championship. She loses when the champ cheats, and is accidentally permanently injured. The trainer then chooses to perform euthanasia. End of story.

  The problem is in the details. Every cliché from ever boxing film before it is used, from the two versions of The Champ, to John Garfield films, to Jimmy Cagney’s City For Conquest, to Kirk Douglas’s Champion, to the Rocky films, Raging Bull, and the earlier girl fight film, Girlfight. Name a scene in this film and it’s a cliché. Eastwood’s trainer, Franky Dunn, speaks in a hoarse, gruff manner like Burgess Meredith’s Mickey from the Rocky films. Whenever his fighter, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), is losing a fight, Franky spouts a cliché like, ‘She’s younger, stronger, and a better fighter than you. What’re you gonna do about it?’ Wham-bam- she knocks out her opponent. Dunn’s lone employee at the gym he owns, the Hit Pit, where Maggie shows up in, is an old washed up, one-eyed boxer-cum-janitor (cliché) played by Morgan Freeman (as Scrap Dupris), in another of his trite Wise, Old Negro roles. Freeman’s character also narrates the film, punctuating the clichéd scenes, cardboard acting, and all the rest with the most obvious of restatements of what we have just witnessed. Let’s see- what other clichés? There is a retarded boxer named Danger (Jay Baruchel), whom Scrap takes under his wing. There is a wiseass, cocky fighter named Shawrelle Berry (Anthony Mackie), who thinks he’s hot shit. Of course, he beats the crap out of Danger, only to have blind old Scrap kick his ass with only a single punch. This pabulum that has nothing to do with the actual film’s narrative, and serves only to give Freeman his Oscar moment, is almost as bad as the whole premise of the film- that anyone gives a damn about female boxing. To take the film’s version of reality, one would think that female boxing is at the height of where male boxing was last century. Even male boxing is in the dumps. Female boxing is a joke sport- right there with obstacles course running with kitchen appliances strapped to your back. Perhaps the most obvious cliché comes when an up and coming boxer of Franky’s stabs him in the back to go with another manager, then wins a title.

  Those are merely the boxing movie clichés. When the last forty minutes switches to social conscience film, there are just as many clichés. Maggie’s clan are white trash vultures. Franky agonizes over euthanizing Maggie with a dipshit priest (Brian O'Byrne) he first met when guilt-stricken when his decision to continue a fight cost Scrap his eye. There are countless scenes filled with pregnant pauses, long glares into each other’s eyes, and the night Franky does finally do in Maggie, well- it’s night, at a hospital, yet he sneaks in, with adrenaline, turns off her machines, and walks out without anyone stopping him. Of course, Scrap is in the shadows, witnessing this, and says nothing. Hello? In this post 9/11 world, it just ain’t gonna happen. Even before that, all hospitals were 24 hour places. There are no darkened halls where assassins can sneak in and out, and no cameras catch them. Even worse is Franky’s pet name for Maggie, which he refuses to tell her the meaning of, until right before he does her in. Oy!

  The acting is adequate, at best, if you can stomach Eastwood’s Burgess Meredith channeling, or Freeman’s pontifications, or Swank’s continuance of Oscar-winning performances by sexy young actresses who mistake gesticulation, scenery chewing,  and overacting for real acting- think Mira Sorvino, Marissa Tomei, Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellwegger, Julia Roberts, Angelina Jolie, etc. The tale is just so over-the-top it’s hard to believe that it could have come from good material. Yet, the source was a book of short stories called Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner, published in 2000, by a boxing trainer named F.X. Toole. The screenplay was written by Paul Haggis, who adapted two of the tales into this film. But, why? Aside from the female boxers (who are uniformly butch and unattractive- save for Swank, who’d really have gotten her ass kicked in real life) there is nothing here that has not been done better in other boxing films.

  Consequently, the viewer does not care about any of the characters- they are uniformly dull, pompous, and annoying. The film is so predictable and obvious it blows my mind. I cannot viscerally understand how people can so love being condescended to, save to believe that most are too stupid to realize that fact. In that sense, perhaps that is why so many drooling morons obviously identified with Swank’s doe-eyed loser. A better and smarter film would have explored the viciousness that manifestly drives this woman from the trailer to beating in the faces of other women. Yet, the film is content with milking every scene for its immanent triteness. You know that Franky’s bravado is false from the first time he growls, ‘Girly, tough ain’t enough’, that Maggie will win his heart, that she will be his ‘Golden Girl’, etc. You know that Freeman is phoning in his performance as the 157th Mystical Negro of his career, when he attempts to make the most execrable clichés seem profound. And the ending is no real ending- not realistic, but not fairy tale, either. Nor is it a tearjerker, no matter how much it contorts itself to try to be one. It just ends, leaving the viewer unsatisfied, with many queries left dangling: Maggie’s family desires her money, she rebukes them, and yet they get her money when she’s killed, anyway. And what of the legal consequences for Franky? Was there no criminal investigation? Were there no repercussions? Was the only thing that happened was that Scrap got a good anecdote to end his letter to Franky’s daughter?

  As for the technical aspects, Eastwood’s palette is always limited, his ‘key’ moments always muddily filmed. Too often, characters wander in and out of frame, which suggests a poorly constructed scene. And, to come full circle, the DVD is a ripoff, with nothing of any real value. Many single DVD films have far more than this bloated 2 DVD set. Pass on this film and find a good version of Champion or City For Conquest, instead.

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