Million Dollar BabyThere are several conceptions of Hollywood that endure. That it doesn't tackle difficult issues; that talented actresses lose out on the bigger roles to prettier actresses; that story driven films don't make money and that Oscars are bought not won. In many cases this is true but when the exception to the rule comes along, every once in a while, film can be grateful.
Beginning with pugilistic chess and the inadequacies that are rife in boxing, Eastwood slowly peels back the layers on multiple pressing issues, starting with prejudice and women's boxing. Margaret Fitzgerald, played by double Oscar winner Hilary Swank, is nobody. A hick from the trailer parks, much like Swank herself initially, Maggie - whose full name we don't actually learn until halfway through the movie - has a love of boxing, it's the only thing she enjoys in her hopeless life. Past 30 years of age, Maggie has no talent but all the guts in the world and when she walks into Franky's (Eastwood) Hit Pit gym, things change rapidly.
From the opening fight with Eastwood's major male prospect Willie, who he keeps holding back for fear of him getting hurt, it becomes clear that Million Dollar Baby is not going to hold back. Although tinged with humour and an easy going nature the venue for the fight is a canvas and sawdust club as far removed from Vegas as you can get, the camera follows Franky as he staunches a terrible cut to Willie's cheek. This image is soon followed by the introduction of Morgan Freeman as Scrap, a former fighter who lost an eye in his last fight and now helps out around the gym. Freeman and Eastwood work exceptionally well together, the Oscar-laden Unforgiven being the most obvious example beside this film, and it is to Freeman the film’s voice-over is given. A sage voice who has seen all that boxing can throw at a man without killing him. In Freeman's opening scene he talks to a young fighter, Danger (the term fighter being applied very loosely in Danger's case) who says he has 'nothing against nigga's, his mamma taught him so'. It is here that one of the main themes lie - we are never certain who feels sorry for whom but that the ring feels sorry for no-one, churning them up and out irrelevant of sex, race, ethnicity, age or appearance. From Eastwood's gnarled, cynical old trainer whose remaining family, a daughter, returns every letter he sends her; to Danger who has never had a fight in his life, there is a multitude of agonies, physical and psychological, boxing can inflict on the talented and talent-less alike. As a metaphor for life boxing works worryingly well.
As Freeman explains of a place that exists ‘somewhere between nowhere and goodbye’ there is an air of melancholy, even in this toughest of sports, that is hard to not describe as nostalgia. It is a resolute acceptance of what is, with one eye on what was and could have been. Sometimes the film strays too far down the cliché-ridden tracks worn out by previous boxing films, the intervention of Maggie’s trailer park; benefits-collecting family into the movie is certainly a distraction from the relationship triangle and tries too eagerly to emphasise Maggie’s hard life. Of course the family as a device do allow Eastwood to use one of the most tragic endings to a film in recent years (which I won’t even try and hint at, if you haven’t seen it or know about it: see it!), proving, if nothing else, this is a movie that challenges conceptions of predictability within the industry and that good stories with good actors and no special effects really do make money. More importantly than that though, they make exceptional movies. I can say nothing more without ruining the story, go watch this movie, it’s certainly in my top three movies ever.
Reviewed by Owen Jones © 2005