Movie review: Million Dollar Baby
Clint Eastwood's boxing movie takes its time ... and is worth it
Posted: Wednesday December 29, 2004 9:47AM; Updated: Wednesday December 29, 2004 5:16PM
By Mike McAllister
Near the end of his boxing movie Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood breaks down and cries. Yeah, I know what you're thinking. Dirty Harry is not supposed to cry. Josey Wales is not supposed to cry. Bronco Billy is certainly not supposed to cry.
It's disturbing to say the least. If Clint Eastwood is sobbing, then what's next? Schwarzenegger doing Shakespeare? DeNiro in La Cage Aux Folles? Stallone developing Rocky: The Opera? There are some typecasts you just don't go against.
Yet as jarring as it is to see Clint succumb to his soft side, it's not unprecedented. He always seems to throw a few curve balls in his tough-as-leather characters. In Heartbreak Ridge, his Tom "Gunny" Highway liked to read women's magazines. Here in Million Dollar Baby, his Frankie Dunn reads Yeats, is learning to speak Gaelic and in his biggest I'm-a-mean-cuss-but-I-can-still-be-a-bleeding-heart-liberal-Hollywood-actor-when-necessary move, he ends up training a boxer. A female boxer. And it's not even Ali's daughter.
Instead, it's Hilary Swank, who reconfirms her status as Top Actress Doing Guy Things by becoming a boxing star under Frankie's tutelage. She hangs around his shabby-looking gym long enough to convince Frankie to train her. Frankie, whose too-cautious approach cost him his meal ticket/best fighter and gave him nothing to do other than read more Yeats and antagonize his local priest, grudgingly says why not.
It helps that Morgan Freeman supports Swank's cause to become a pro boxer. As they did in Unforgiven, Eastwood and Freeman have an engaging rapport -- let's face it, they're the geriatric representatives of the Multi-racial Buddy Genre, which also includes Mel Gibson-Danny Glover, Samuel L. Jackson-John Travolta and Chris Tucker-Jackie Chan. (Special kudos to Bruce Willis in his Die Hard series for teaming with Reginald VelJohnson in the first two and Jackson in the third.)
And just as in Unforgiven and the other movies Eastwood has directed, Baby has a somewhat leisurely pace. That placates the critics, who get to revel in the cinematic artistry, but at 135 minutes, it might leave some movie-goers wishing they had opted for a second helping of The Incredibles.
But hey, Eastwood's 74 years old. Like a senior citizen behind the wheel of a Buick, Eastwood behind the camera will take his own damn time. You want fast-paced action? Wait for the next Jerry Bruckheimer flick. With Eastwood, you get excellent storytelling and acting. You just better pack (or at the theater, sneak in) a lunch.
So, you're asking, what about the boxing scenes? Believable ... or laughable? Some scenes require a suspension of disbelief -- including, arguably, the key twist of fate -- but it shouldn't detract from your enjoyment of the movie. At least Swank looks like she can box, which is more than can be said for Ryan O'Neal in The Main Event.
Oscar talk, best of 2004 lists ... lots of praise is being heaped on Million Dollar Baby (by the way, Clint, what's with the candy-bar sounding title?). I'm not quite sure it's all deserved. On the Eastwood scale, it's not as good as Unforgiven (Best Picture winner, 1992) but might be slightly better than Mystic River (Best Picture nominee, 2003). Expect Baby to receive a Best Picture nomination, but it shouldn't be the favorite.
Despite the movie's great reviews, the theater in Manhattan in which I saw it was less than half-full on a Sunday afternoon. Maybe movies about female boxers are just not going to draw, no matter how well they're crafted. Maybe word-of-mouth has been a bit slow. Maybe it's just not a holiday movie. After all, Meet The Fockers is doing great business following mediocre reviews.
Or, hey, maybe people just don't want to see Clint sobbing. After all, it's tough enough to see him reading poetry.
SI.com producer Mike McAllister doesn't claim to be a movie expert, although he has visited the Universal Studios theme parks on several occasions. His favorite ride? Revenge of the Mummy.