Million Dollar Baby

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The reason why Million Dollar Baby works so well is because it's not really a boxing film. It's really a film about paternal love. Therefore the two main characters could be anything and the film would still probably work. However, that's not to say that the boxing doesn't help the film, because it does. It helps give the film grit, it works as a metaphor for all the knocks the two main characters have suffered in their lives and it gives the film a certain novelty value – female boxers being rare in cinema.

And this little bit of novelty value is important because a lot of the film has already been covered – the plucky amateur, the reluctant trainer, the wise old man who never quite made it and the cocky youngsters. So initially there's a feeling that we've already seen this loads of times before. But even before the 'twist', and despite the sense of over-familiarity, the film has a certain something that intrigues and appeals. It isn't that it's about a female boxer, because that doesn't differentiate it much from other boxing films, it's that it has a lot of soul. Unlike other films about boxing it doesn't glamorise the sport. Instead it acknowledges that people watch boxing because they like seeing violence and because they get off on human suffering. So instead of a triumphant film you have a rather melancholy one.

However, despite the slightly sombre tone, there is quite a bit of humour in the film. And some of it works and some of it doesn't. I liked the scenes where Frankie (Eastwood) torments his pastor, and I liked the banter between Frankie and Eddie (Morgan Freeman), but the special needs kid who wants to be a boxer was far too cute. It really felt like something out of another movie. It isn't needed and it adds nothing to the film – except to give the audience a cheap 'Yes!' moment when Eddie punches a bully's lights out.

Something else that wasn't needed was the evil white trash family. Had they been realistically nasty they would have served their purpose – they push Maggie (Hilary Swank) into Frankie's arms, a man who becomes her real family – but instead they're far too cartoonish. I can well believe that a mother would try and take her injured daughter's money from her, as families do horrid things to each other all the time, but it just didn't feel right. It wasn't well played.

But the special needs boxer and the evil white trash family don't take up that much time and therefore they don't detract from the rest of the film. And the rest of the film is great. One of the little things I loved was Frankie's strained relationship with his daughter. You never get to find out what went wrong between them, but with her sending his letters back you begin to understand part of the reason why Frankie is reluctant to train 'girls' and why he eventually relents – his relationship with Maggie is some sort of atonement for past mistakes. And there's a powerful little moment after Maggie has broken her neck when Frankie goes home and sees yet another returned letter on the floor. The sadness on Eastwood's face is heartbreaking; you can see how much pain he's in.

But another wonderful little moment is when Frankie cleans Maggie's bedsores. He says the nurses don't know what they're doing. At that moment he really is her father. He's doing what any man would do for his daughter if they were in such an unfortunate position. And there's a great little moment where she quietly says thank you. It's a line that can pass by unnoticed if you're not paying attention, but it says so much.

And there are quite a few nice little bits between the characters during the film, moments that don't call attention to themselves but which generate a depth of feeling for the people involved. One such scene is when Maggie busts her nose. At the hospital, when she has to go off to be seen, Frankie says that he'll be right there. Again he's acting exactly like her dad. And I also liked the scene where halfway through Maggie's first proper fight Frankie joins her corner. She looks delighted to have him and he looks proud as punch when she wins. And afterwards there's a nice little exchange. "You gonna leave me again?" "Never." And another small moment that helps greatly is when Frankie gives Maggie an expensive robe for her fight. It's a dad giving his daughter a gift.

However, this does lead me to one final problem I have with the film. I didn't particularly like the fight where Maggie gets injured. The dirty German boxer again was just a bit over the top. I mean, I know boxers have lots of dirty tricks, but can someone really get away with punching an opponent when they're getting up off the mat? Rather than coming across as a dirty fighter the German came over more like a scheming villain – although I do like the fact that the German's actions are somewhat motivated by Frankie insulting her earlier, meaning that he's somewhat responsible for Maggie's injury; but I do think Eastwood took the German's rule breaking a step too far.

But the final scenes between Frankie and Maggie more than make up for the film's shortcomings. They hit really hard. And Frankie's last act is a genuine act of compassion; it's entirely selfless and it expresses how much he's come to love Maggie – he ignores his feelings to give her some dignity. And the very end itself is both hopeful and hopeless. It's hopeful because there's a chance that Frankie's daughter will find out what sort of man her father was and it's hopeless because Frankie will never get over what he did. A wonderful film.

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