**/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras C+
starring Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, Jay Baruchel
screenplay by Paul Haggis, based on stories from Rope Burns by F.X. Toole
directed by Clint Eastwood
by Walter Chaw As a fighter, Clint Eastwood's boxing flick Million Dollar Baby telegraphs its punches, demonstrates some muddy footwork, and, when all's said and done, doesn't pack much of a wallop no matter how many roundhouses it throws to the rafters. It stretches for timelessness, which Eastwood seems to equate with poor lighting and a lack of coverage, and it casts Morgan Freeman in another one of those Morgan Freeman roles where he contextualizes, in his homey, lightly-accented basso profundo warmth, the life and times of the white iconoclast for whom he is the catalyzing agent and confidante (The Shawshank Redemption, Driving Miss Daisy, Bruce Almighty, Clean and Sober). The picture has a framing story and a movie-long narration, two more ingredients in the neo-noir/American Gothic stew that Eastwood has continued to perpetuate long after his twin Americana triumphs A Perfect World and Unforgiven rendered the conversation--at least inasmuch as Eastwood is capable of carrying it--moot. Not to say that Million Dollar Baby is a total mutt, just that it's an obvious, self-important, overwritten thing designed to appeal to specific, stodgy, awards-season prestige audiences that love film so much, this will be the first movie they see this year.
Frankie (Eastwood) is a grizzled boxing trainer in the Burgess Meredith mold, chewing leather and spitting nails and initially refusing to take on a "girl" boxer even though the girl in question, Maggie (Hilary Swank, playing another desexualized female), demonstrates the kind of tenacious true grit from which Karate Kid movies are born. Indeed, with Ms. Swank having already inherited the mantle of Ralph Macchio as The Next Karate Kid, there's a sense of déjà vu when Maggie finds a practical application for Frankie's tutelage at her day-job as a greasy-spoon waitress. Her meteoric rise is punctuated by fun sequences that feature Maggie battering a succession of hapless women while gym rat Scrap (Freeman) provides the honeyed context of her progression through the WBA ranks. If you listen carefully to these little bundles of cornpone wisdom, in fact, they reveal every single secret of the film with the subtlety of a ball-peen hammer to the temple. Every secret, that is, not already advertised by Paul Haggis's blindingly allegorical screenplay and/or Eastwood's literal direction. (Haggis, somehow appropriately, used to write for "The Facts of Life".) It appears that Frankie is estranged from his own daughter (!) and that, hey, Maggie's lost her dad. This leads, of course, to something that feels like a day's worth of exposition, wherein lines like "Me and my daddy used to come here" or "You remind me a lot of my daddy" cause the twenty percent or so of moviegoers not already deadened by theYeats references to squeal in delight over their ability to ferret out deeper meaning from an allegedly medium-cool text.
But it's not an obscure text at all, of course--it's an obvious one thick with hillbillies from Missouri (Maggie's greasy family), thugs from East L.A., and crazy idiots from, probably, Indiana. Eastwood-helmed films, to me at least, are coarse, broad, and sometimes offensive; it took him seven decades to come up with a reductivist feminist film (one that portrays good women as dead or male analogs), marking Million Dollar Baby as something along the lines of Eastwood's apology for Play Misty for Me the way that Unforgiven was his apology for the violence of the Sergio Leone cycle. It's probably Eastwood's Robert Bly/"Iron John," one-take approach that so appeals to the middlebrow this time of year: He makes pretentious movies that pretend they aren't pretentious. (Who else but Eastwood could get away with having a character receive phone calls from a wife who never speaks?) Here's an artist of honesty--a jazz musician interested in rhythm and improvisation to the detriment of tone, perhaps, and a creator of inside jokes that aren't as self-contained as the jammer might believe. But just as the strength of a belief doesn't mean the belief is correct, an artist with integrity doesn't automatically make his art worth much of a damn.
Issues of faith are addressed in Million Dollar Baby as Frankie is revealed to have attended every Mass for decades despite exhibiting no discernable respect for the conventions of organized Catholicism. A tough-talking priest (Bryan F. O'Byrne) lambastes him at one point for a choice that Frankie has concerning a paralyzed friend, but because the film feints and dodges at moments of real crisis, the fact that a lot of Catholics were polarized by their clergy this last election over issues of stem-cell research is never broached. Having the picture turn on a decision made in consultation with a representative of an organization directly blocking a possible medical cure to paralysis is loaded at least--and probably deserving of a more careful combing over than a bad case of urban paranoia, a sad reference to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and a partial reading of Yeats's "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"--which, while a wonderful poem in and of itself, is a woeful and embarrassing anthem for a pair of kindred spirits (both older than, say, seventeen) yearning to be free.
Scrap says early on about a boxer's cuts that sometimes they're simply too deep or too close to the bone to heal. (He'll say it again later, natch, in reference to psychic wounds requiring the salve of cosmic penance.) It's the sort of thing that you'll find either cringe-inducing or a tearjerking invocation of life's karmic ironies--the difference between someone who appreciates boxing as a metaphor for existence and someone who thinks that this sort of masculinized spanking is better assuaged by hunting trips and NASCAR. The problem with Million Dollar Baby is neither its fighting sequences (good) nor, in truth, its performances (nothing special, but not awful), but rather that it treats us like stooges by narrating every step with a careful, paternal clarity reserved for the dumbest kid in class. Find reason there for the caricatured white trash pastiches serving as Maggie's family (and additional pathos in Maggie's need for a father figure), the boxing-trainer archetype, the old fighter Scrap (blind in one eye and living in a tiny room at the gym), the evil Drago Eastern Bloc nemesis, and the rags-to-riches sports story into noble-cripple tropes that worked in 1962 with Requiem for a Heavyweight. (And hey, Eastwood is looking a lot like Jack Palance these days.) Shame they haven't gotten any fresher in the intervening forty-two years.
by Bill Chambers Warner issues Million Dollar Baby on DVD in competing 2-disc widescreen and fullscreen editions as well as in a "3-Disc Deluxe Edition" containing a bonus CD of Clint Eastwood's complete score. We received the regular widescreen version for review, whose 2.37:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer is an absolute stunner. Not the biggest fan of Tom Stern-era Eastwood, but what we have here is completely un-digital in appearance, like a (velvet) painting come to life, and the surprisingly minimal presence of grain doesn't cause the image to look any less filmic. Also quite appealing, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is predictably understated but doesn't wimp-out when the mix calls for a wallop of bass (especially during Maggie's fateful match with Billie the Blue Bear); much of the sound is up front but aggressively stereophonic all the same. Except for the theatrical trailer, extras are on the second platter--and though handsomely mounted (by Pond Films), the three featurettes that constitute this bulk of supplementary material are almost pathologically uninsightful. Of the major cast members interviewed in "Born to Fight" (14 mins.), for instance, only the Blue Bear herself, real-life boxer Lucia Rijker (misspelled "Rikjer" in the "special thanks to"s), deviates from a conventional plot recap by revealing where and how the film rang true for her.
The better "The Producers' Round 15" (13 mins.) alternates interviews with veteran producer Albert S. Ruddy, producer Tom Rosenberg, and screenwriter Paul Haggis, the latter of whom betrays more exasperation than pride in recounting Eastwood's decision to shoot the first draft of his script. We learn that F.X. Toole, author of the film's source material (which was initially going to be adapted into an HBO mini-series), had a poet's demeanour--but, oddly, not that he died without seeing the project to fruition. Last and certainly least, "James Lipton Takes on Three" (25 mins.) finds the creepy host of "Inside the Actor's Studio" being his usual stalkerish self whilst conducting a "Charlie Rose"-esque roundtable with Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Hilary Swank. While the trio's Oscars are smugly displayed at the start of the piece and Eastwood and Swank never do lose their shit-eating grins, it's Lipton's oft-parodied technique of verbal fellatio that finally makes the piece as squirm-inducing as it is. Freeman nearly salvages things with his casually dismissive responses and an unpretentious reminiscence of the vastly-underrated Stacy Keach, but Swank only encourages their obsequious MC with her picture-perfect rags-to-riches story. "If that's not fate, what is?" she asks rhetorically (and toothily) of the time her mother called every agent in the phone book until one came through with an audition for a McDonald's commercial that young Hilary happened to ace. No, dear, that's called wilful ignorance. Originally published: July 28, 2005.