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Laramie Movie Scope:
Million Dollar Baby

Old-fashioned boxing movie

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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January 17, 2005 -- “Million Dollar Baby” is an old-fashioned boxing movie brimming with crusty sports movie clichés seen many times in films like “Rocky,” “Hard Times,” “Girl Fight,” “Bang the Drum Slowly,” “The Set-Up,” “Brian's Song,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and many others. The strength of this film is not the story, it lies in wonderful performances, strong characters, and some well-staged fight scenes. The screenplay was written by Paul Haggis (“Crash”), adapted from a book, “Rope Burns” by F.X. Toole. The film is produced, directed and stars Clint Eastwood, who also wrote the music for the film.

The movie starts out as a standard sports movie, but switches clichés near the end of the film to become a slightly different kind of standard sports movie. It will appeal to those glass-is-half-empty people who like to think their dark vision of life is the only valid one. I'm trying to decide which film is more depressing, Clint Eastwood's “Mystic River,” or his “Million Dollar Baby.” Is Clint not feeling well these days? I worry about him. The story is also saddled with a fairly useless sub-plot involving a retarded boxer, but that does lead to the best scene in the movie when an ancient boxer strikes back at a young, smug boxer.

The movie stars Eastwood (“Space Cowboys”) as Frankie Dunn, an aging fight trainer and cut man, and Morgan Freeman (“Kiss the Girls”) as Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris, a washed up ex-fighter who helps him operate a run-down boxing gymnasium. Hilary Swank of “The Core” stars as Maggie Fitzgerald, a mighty boxing waitress who wants to be a contender. All three actors give wonderful performances in roles that are tailor-made for each of them. Swank's performance is very similar to her academy award-winning performance in “Boys Don't Cry.” Freeman long ago perfected his folksy, world-weary sagacious, dignified on-screen persona. Eastwood has done the crusty, irascible old man routine before as well. There are excellent supporting performances too, including a searing portrayal of Maggie's heartless, slothful mother, Earline, by Margo Martindale of “The Human Stain”).

The movie does a good job of exploring the world of boxing, and gives a fair depiction of training and technique right up to the end of the film, when strangely, the rules of boxing collapse. You're watching a boxing match, and suddenly a World Wrestling Federation fight breaks out. I half expected a boxer to pick up a folding chair and smash the other fighter over the head with it. I don't follow boxing any more, but has it really gotten that bad? Have they totally abandoned the rules of boxing in order to make the fights more entertaining? That was certainly the case in the movie. The final fight is way out of character with the more traditional depiction of boxing rules and techniques in the rest of the film. The last fight seemed more like a mockery of boxing to me.

Another part of the film that bothered me were the church scenes. A number of scenes take place in a Catholic Church. There is a running gag where Eastwood baits the priest into getting angry by posing stock theological arguments. These scenes are funny but they are phony. The Roman Catholic Church has been around for 2,000 years. Its legions of theologians have formulated comprehensive positions on the standard theological arguments raised in the film, like the holy trinity, immaculate conception and so on. The movie would have you believe your average priest had never heard of these arguments and that the church has no answer for them. The priest in the film is set up like a patsy for Eastwood's theological baiting. The idea behind these scenes is to depict the church as incapable of providing moral guidance for a key issue late in the film. It is no surprise that the movie's final answer to a thorny moral issue is situational ethics. That philosophy is an easy way out of any moral dilemma. By the way, doesn't “Million Dollar Baby” seem like a lame title for this film?

I like a film that has a character-driven plot. This film is more like a fight in which the characters are having the stuffings beat out of them by the plot. This is certainly a well-crafted film. The fight scenes are extremely well-staged. The acting is excellent. The first three-quarters of the film is great, before it turns into a soap opera.

The major problem is that Maggie is a fighter, but when the plot demands it, she simply gives up and quits fighting. Eastwood's genius is convincing some viewers, not me, that her giving up is actually a noble fight. Not only does she give up, she asks for help in giving up. Not only does she ask for help, but for the kind of help that could land her best friend in prison. This sudden turnaround from a noble boxer to a victim who takes a dive, at such a high cost to others, is a transformation of character demanded by the plot. It is not convincing because it doesn't arise from the nature of the character. The plot forces Maggie out of character in order for her actions to conform to the needs of the story.

My problems with the plot are detailed above. This is a good film despite its reliance on sports clichés and its WWF boxing rules, church-bashing, moral relativism and plot-driven characters. This is a case where the actors and director have magically turned a chicken poop story into a chicken salad movie. The film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2005 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)