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Wednesday, June 1, 2005
KO'd by a sucker punch
"Million Dollar Baby" is the film that cleaned up at the Oscars this year, taking home the awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor. And yet despite all that, the film's a bit of a hard sell. Why's that? Well, try this . . .
Old, bitter, nearly washed-up boxing trainer Frankie (Clint Eastwood) is appalled when a young woman, Maggie (Hilary Swank), turns up at his gym looking for instruction. A traditionalist, and a damn ornery one at that, he discourages Maggie from boxing. But being even more stubborn than he is, she won't give up her dream of stepping into the ring.
The gym's janitor, Scrap Iron (Morgan Freeman), a former boxer and protege of Frankie, has a kinder heart, and he shows her how to work the bag, and other training fundamentals. He also knows how to work Frankie, and bit by bit his resolve is worn down, and he becomes Maggie's trainer. Frankie takes her on a run all the way to stardom and a $1 million championship fight . . .
Now if you think a plucky underdog boxer fighting for a championship is Oscar material, you'd be right -- remember 1976's "Rocky," with Sylvester Stallone? But the above synopsis may leave you wondering what's so great about "Million Dollar Baby." What is there here that's different from the hundreds of other rags-to-riches sports movies out there? OK, so the boxer's a woman. Neat twist, but it was done in "Girlfight," which scored at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000, yet didn't pick up any Academy nominations.
Rest assured that the film does have a twist -- about two-thirds of the way through it will deck you with a right upper-cut when you're expecting the left. Clint Eastwood pulls off a remarkable piece of direction here, lulling you into a comfy state of genre cruise control, before hitting you with a painful, heart-rending denouement that makes "Mystic River," the director's previous film, look like a Saturday-morning cartoon.
The key here, though, is you've got to walk into the theater not knowing where this film's going to take you. Trust me, I'm not going to ruin it for you here. But the film had touched on an issue that the vast rightwing blabosphere in the States had decided to make their "culture war" issue of the month.
In this age of political extremism, even a solid Republican like Clint took the heat from ranters like radio host Rush Limbaugh, accusing him of promoting a liberal agenda, while -- some say deliberately -- ruining the film's surprise by revealing its plot twist on the air. Ironically enough, the right have now picked up the Stalinist approach to film criticism that used to characterize the politically correct left: No film can ever just be a story about certain people doing certain things. Rather, the portrayal of any human experience is judged as meeting or failing certain ideological criteria, in the belief that reality cannot be portrayed as is, only as the ideologues demand it should be.
I apologize if this all seems a bit vague, and no, the film isn't about gay marriage (despite the presence of "Boys Don't Cry" star Swank.) But take my advice and avoid the reviews, the op-ed pages, the blogs, anywhere you see the name "Million Dollar Baby."
I wasn't so lucky, and I found the film to be less than enjoyable -- thus my bifurcated star rating. True, Swank and Eastwood develop some real chemistry, a father-daughter sort of affection that's moving because it really seems hard-won. Eastwood plays Frankie as a man who's known both rejection and failure, and is afraid to care too much, either professionally or personally. "Protect yourself at all times" is Frankie's golden rule, and it's clear he follows it outside the ring as well.
Scrap Iron, who lost an eye years before when Frankie didn't stop a fight, is a constant reminder of his mistakes. Frankie has lost his nerve, and to see him get it back as he coaches Maggie is to see a fine piece of acting.
Swank won her first Oscar with a very physically demanding role in "Boys Don't Cry," and she does it again here, bulking up and looking convincing in the ring. Her best point is the natural optimism and can-do attitude she brings to Maggie, that big grin convincing everybody -- Frankie, Scrap, the audience -- that everything's gonna be all right . . . which sets us up for that sucker punch in the last act.
If you know what's coming, though, you start to see how clearly the movie is telegraphing where it's going. You also have time to notice how Freeman's gym janitor isn't all that different from his God-janitor role in "Bruce Almighty" -- his all-knowing, all-seeing voiceover is more than a little too well-scripted for the words of a gym janitor. You also start to get irked by the irrelevant side-plot involving a nerd at Frankie's gym who thinks he's a great boxer, a silly character who'd seem more at home in "Dodgeball." In other words, the illusion doesn't hold.
"Million Dollar Baby" is a boxing flick, with some scary moments in the ring, but one that's also concerned with other themes: What defines success? Can we escape our pasts? Is some pain unbearable? The film often skirts with hokey melodrama, but that may be the point, getting you to drop your guard. So, remember, ignorance is bliss. See it cold or don't see it.