Capsule Movie Review: Million Dollar Baby (2004)

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Million Dollar Baby

Sports Drama | 132 minutes | 2004 | United States

* *

Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), from southwest Missouri, has worked as a waitress from her early teens. Stuck in grim poverty, she seeks a way beyond her circumstances, and determines to become a boxer. She turns up at a worn-down Los Angeles gym, owned and run by Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) with the help of Eddie ‘Scrap-Iron’ Dupris (Morgan Freeman): a former boxer himself, coached into contendership by Frankie, but blinded in one eye in what proved his final fight.

Frankie only reluctantly and by degrees becomes Maggie’s trainer: he thinks she is too old and ill-equipped, and besides he doesn’t believe in training a girl. But from the outset she proves a fierce competitor, knocking out a string of opponents, before Frankie moves her up a weight class and they travel to challenge in Europe. The two form something of a father-daughter relationship, with Frankie estranged from his own daughter, while Maggie’s father – who she recalls fondly – died when she was young. She is still sending money to support her dysfunctional hick relatives. Eventually and against Frankie’s impulse, she earns a big Las Vegas title fight, but is hit after the bell with a sucker-punch.

In a review of Mystic River (2003) in The Atlantic, Christopher Orr condemns Eastwood’s use of what he terms the ‘psycho ex machina’. And this figure is an unfortunate constant across Eastwood’s body of work. It is a product of his determinism – a belief that most people are bound to accept their lot in life, to be defined by what happens to them, and that while there may be exceptional individuals, these are always fighting against the tide. In Mystic River, Dave is so damaged by sexual abuse that he seems to lose all agency.

And here the psychos ex machina are Maggie’s family – her mother, sister, and sister’s hanger-on – who berate her for buying them a house on the pretext that it might mean a cut in their welfare; and who later visit Maggie in hospital only having first toured Disneyland and Universal Studios, accompanied by tacky gift-shop memorabilia and by an attorney, as they care solely about securing Maggie’s wealth. They are crude caricatures, Eastwood talking to an empty chair.

That they play an important but farcical role in the final third of the film isn’t the only flaw with Million Dollar Baby. The picture is painfully intense, but its single note is overly worthy and incessantly dull. There is much to admire about Clint Eastwood as a filmmaker: he is at least willing to assert a point of view, and often a boldly unconventional one by the standards of Hollywood; he has a good eye, an artist’s appreciation for the strength of patience, and composes focused scores; and he has a facile knack for a populist gesture, which can be a virtue as well as a vice. But when ideology doesn’t get in the way, there is still something stunted and inert about his work. Despite impressively austere performances from its three leads, Million Dollar Baby is a sentimental film, which succumbs to mawkish sloganeering.

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