For more movie summaries, see Kam's Kapsules.
Million Dollar Baby: Waitress-Turned-Boxer Trains for Title Fight in Female Version of Rocky
Review by Kam Williams
Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) is a grizzled veteran trainer who has had a long, disappointing career running a dilapidated boxing gym in downtown Los Angeles. Although he is one of the best in the business, he's been gun-shy since the night he failed to throw in the towel during a title bout which left his fighter blind in one eye.
Since then, Frankie and Scrap Iron (Morgan Freeman), the blinded fighter, have been inseparable. Scrap Iron became Frankie's live-in janitor and sage assistant at the Hit Pit. Scrap's presence serves as a reminder of the risks inherent in the brutal sport, so that Dunn has found it impossible to send another promising pugilist to a championship fight. As a result, he's become known as a manager who only takes his boxers so far before they have to find another agent to help them achieve their dreams.
Beneath his gruff exterior, Frankie is a vulnerable, spiritual soul, a man upset about being estranged from his daughter, who returns his letters unopened. Furthermore, he's a doubting Catholic who has attended services daily for the past 23 years, and debates deep moral issues after mass with Father Horvak (Brian O'Byrne).
Then, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) arrives at the gym demanding to be turned into a boxer, even though Frankie responds to her repeated request with a dismissive "I don't train girls." However, the spunky 31 year-old waitress will not be discouraged, and Frankie realizes that she represents a chance not only to train a contender, but also to replace his missing father-daughter relationship.
Million Dollar Baby received seven Academy Award nominations on the strength of its big-name cast and benefited from not being released until the end of January. All the Oscar hype surrounding it was generated by Warner Brothers marketing department, not by word of mouth.
I also suspect that some in the nominating committee conferred sympathy votes on this seriously-flawed production because Clint Eastwood's Mystic River deserved to win a year ago for Best Picture, Director and Script, but lost out in each case to Lord of the Rings 3, which swept the Oscars.
Million Dollar Baby is based on the novella of the same name by F.X. O'Toole, who spent 30 years in the Los Angeles fight game. The picture is reminiscent of Requiem for a Heavyweight (1957), a gripping television drama written by Rod Serling. He won an Emmy for that searing examination of the meager options left to a washed-up boxer who has retired from the ring after enduring a pummeling that left him a punch away from a permanent injury.
The first problem I have with Million Dollar Baby is that none of its three principals are authentic. Maggie seems too self-assured for someone who has been on her own and waitressing since she was 13. Also, she masters the art of boxing and rise in the ranks too effortlessly.
I found Frankie frustrating because he holds his cards too close to his vest, never explaining why his daughter won't talk to him or why he goes to church so faithfully, given that he's a disbeliever. Scrap Iron, the movie's narrator, is the most irritating, because he's a familiar Hollywood stereotype, that philosophizing, African-American, inspirational motivator full of wise advice that he, inexplicably, never bothers to put to use on his own behalf (think Bagger Vance or The Green Mile). If Scrap's so brilliant, then why is he still a custodian?
Another annoying character is a scrawny, undeveloped, uncoordinated trash-talker nicknamed Danger (Jay Baruchel), a gym rat who makes a nuisance of himself. Finally, there's Maggie's mother, Earline (Margo Martindale), a dysfunctional welfare queen with a thick Southern accent who is content to be stuck in a trailer park.
The first three-quarters of the film unfolds like your stock boxing movie, the stock "up from nothing" scenario we've witnessed countless times since Rocky. The movie might have been bearable if it had played out in a predictable fashion.
However, the story abruptly veers in an unanticipated direction after a surprise plot twist which asks us to contemplate a sobering social issue. It's almost as though you're watching two different movies.
The tension surrounding this "rabbit-out-of-the-hat" development is ultimately resolved in a manner which this critic found to be inappropriate and inconsistent with the development of the personalities up to that point. Since it would be unfair to discuss the plot any further, suffice it to say that Million Dollar Baby is likely to cause as much controversy as either The Passion or Fahrenheit 9/11.
No accolades for this unforgivable exercise in insensitivity.
Fair (1 star). Rating: PG-13 for expletives, boxing violence, adult themes, and disturbing images. Running time: 132 minutes. Studio: Warner Brothers.
end of review.
For more movie summaries, see Kam's Kapsules.