Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Million Dollar Baby – 2004

Director – Clint Eastwood

Starring – Hillary Swank, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman

Elvis or the Beatles?  Sammy Hagar or David Lee Roth? Biggie or Tupac?  If you like one, liking the other is out of the question.  Your stance on each of these pressing issues has the power to determine what category others lump you into, and more importantly, it determines where you place yourself.  I would argue that, as in the music world, so too in the world of film.  One crucial example of this “either, or” mentality is found in the career of Clint Eastwood.  Either you like him as an actor (generally his earlier career), or you like him as a director (equally as generally his later career).  I’ve found that I like one, and definitely am not  a fan of the other.

Eastwood, for the entirety of his career has stayed busy, prolific even.  Stories of his work ethic are stuff of legend in Hollywood, no matter which side of the camera he finds himself on.  As an actor, he has a steely intensity that gave life to roles such as “Dirty” Harry Callahan of the Dirty Harry series, the man with no name from his spaghetti western days, and Private Kelly of Kelly’s Heroes.  As a director, this intensity translates to a certain austerity, an emptiness that never feels finished.  Sure it has all the bells and whistles, star actors, polished editing, and usually an unflinching story, yet his direction has always left me wanting.

It’s fair to say that I prefer Eastwood’s acting more than his directing, and thusly was not a huge fan of Million Dollar Baby.  Eastwood’s bifurcated tale of the never-say-die female boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald, and her curmudgeonly old trainer Frank Dunn is actually made up from two different short stories from the same author, which would explain the distinctly different nature of the two halves.  Fitzgerald, played here by Swank, manages to worm her way into Dunn’s heart through sheer pluck and can do attitude.  Luckily for the both of them she turns out to be a decent fighter despite her age, and apparent lack of skill at the beginning.  She ends up in a series of fights, heading for the top until tragedy strikes.  Without giving away too much, Fitzgerald and her trainer / father-figure are forced to make some pretty hard choices by the end of the film.

This film, just like Mystic River, Invictus, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and yes even the beloved Unforgiven, is missing something.  The problem comes in when I can’t put my finger on exactly what is missing.  The stories, and acting all seem somehow sewn together and incomplete.  We get almost no detail about how Fitzgerald came to be so pugnacious or why Dunn ended up as such a grouch.  We’re given a little bit of a clue as to why he accepts her with the inclusion of a few lines about how he is estranged from his daughter, but most other details are left to our imagination.

Acting wise Eastwood has the goods (I mean he does have a career filled with grumpy characters), but unfortunately Swank doesn’t.  Now I have never really been a fan of her, but critically speaking she seems to only have one set of traits that she falls back on for each and every role that she takes.  Abused (emotionally or physically, she is versatile enough for both) hillbilly characters.  Morgan Freeman, is always good at what he does, unfortunately most of his acting is used as a storytelling method in the very unnecessary voice over segments.  His considerable talent is wasted in the role he’s given, all I can guess is that Eastwood just likes having him in his movies.

The two stories that make up the film aren’t enough, by themselves, to flesh out a feature-length film no matter who is directing them, but with Eastwood’s minimalist style it falls flat quicker than it otherwise would.  While it isn’t a terrible movie, I think it may have been included on this list because it was at the time a controversial film that people were talking about.  It doesn’t hold up, and most likely will be replaced at some point in future editions of this book to make room for something else.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“Live your dreams. Get paralyzed.  Kill yourself.” – Ashley