“Million Dollar Baby” is a strong contender, but it suffers a TKO in the last round.
At first, it is a fresh, assured, and evocative take on the classic boxing formula. A tired old trainer (Clint Eastwood as Frankie), abandoned by the prospect he hoped to take to the title bout, meets a scrappy but untrained would-be boxer. He initially refuses to train the kid, but is won over, at first by the persistence, then by the heart of the young fighter. There’s another connection between them, too. Frankie has no family but a long-estranged daughter. The boxer’s father is dead and the remaining family is all greedy, selfish, and lazy. The bond between them helps to ease both of their losses.
One reason the relationship becomes so important to Frankie is that the boxer is a young woman. Maggie (Hillary Swank) gives Frankie the chance to bring all that is best in him to a nurturing relationship with a young woman about the age of his daughter. And Frankie gives Maggie the chance to be a champion.
The details of the boxing world and Frankie’s relationships with Maggie and with his long-time friend Eddie (Morgan Freeman, who also narrates) are warm and richly observed. Frankie and Eddie have the bickering banter of a long-time married couple and pros Eastwood and Freeman riff off each other like jazz players who have been jamming for a lifetime. Eastwood is also marvelous with Swank, a performance that is fuller, fonder, and funnier than we have seen from him since the Any Which Way But Loose days. For the first half of the film, the narration, based on F.X. Toole’s superb book and beautifully read by Freeman, is so vivid we can smell sweat and adrenalin. A kid with more heart than arm “punches the air like he expected it to punch back.” Another fighter has “a punch that could stop a tank but a heart the size of a split pea.”
But then we hear the same stuff again. We get it, we get it — when Eddie says that “Everything in boxing is backward. Sometimes the best way to deliver a punch is to step back,” you don’t need to repeat it for us to figure out the metaphor. Same with “Instead of running away from the pain like a sane person would do, you run right into it.” The sign on the wall tells us that “Winners are simply willing to do what losers won’t.” Come on, Clint, that wouldn’t even qualify for a fortune cookie.
Frankie has made mistakes. He let Eddie fight too long, and Eddie lost an eye. He did not let a contender fight for the championship, and the contender left him. How will he know when it is time for Maggie to go for a title? He tells her that the first rule is to protect herself at all times. What does that mean when she is going into the ring to hit and be hit in return?
All of this is interesting, but then the film takes a bad punch and never gets back up off the canvas. When tragedy hits, Frankie and Maggie have to make some tough choices. So does director Eastwood, and he makes the wrong ones, going for the manipulative and the maudlin, everyone lining up as either saintly or unredeemably awful. And that narration keeps coming back to hammer in every insight.
Parents should know that the movie features brutally realistic fight scenes with graphic injuries. STOP reading now if you want to avoid spoilers. A character becomes paralyzed and asks to be allowed to die. Characters drink and smoke and use some strong language, including the n-word. There are some mild sexual references and some ugly insults. Some viewers may be unhappy with the portrayal of a priest who uses bad language.
Families who see this movie should talk about what makes someone want to be a fighter. What does it mean to say that “everything in boxing is backward” and “sometimes the best way to deliver a punch is to step back?” How does that relate to the way the characters behave? Why does Frankie argue with the priest about theology? Do you agree with the sign in the gym that says “Winners are simply willing to do what losers won’t?” What is it that winners are willing to do? How is the number one rule – “protect yourself” – applied by Frankie? By Maggie? By Eddie? Why did Maggie turn out so differently from her brother and sister? Families may also want to talk about Maggie’s request and Frankie’s decision.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the many classic movies about boxing, including Golden Boy, Body and Soul, and Rocky. Michele Rodriguez made a stunning debut as a female boxer in Girlfight. Families will also enjoy the light-hearted romantic comedy Pat and Mike with Katharine Hepburn as a golfer and Spencer Tracy as her manager. Boxing fans (and fans of great writing) will enjoy the book that inspired the movie, Rope Burns by F. X. Toole. They can find out more about women’s boxing here. And they can try to make lemon meringue pie without any stuff from a can.