Chasing a dream that fades to blackI personally wouldn’t have given “Million Dollar Baby” all those Academy Awards last week, but that’s only because I’ve seen “Sideways.” That said, it’s certainly one of the better movies I’ve seen in a while.
It’s old-fashioned, but not self-consciously so. It’s a straightforward story that deals with themes as old as the human condition, but you don’t get the sense that the people who made it are congratulating themselves about that. It has a texture like old wood. It’s got a lot in common with blues music, except that it isn’t boring.
As you may have heard, it’s a movie about boxing ― specifically, about a woman boxer (played by Hilary Swank), which I suppose is a novelty, though it doesn’t feel like one. Swank’s character, Maggie, is a woman in her early 30s from what less polite Americans would call a trailer-trash background. She’s moved to Los Angeles to become a boxer, and is spending her days, when not waiting tables, in the gym owned by Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), an aging trainer and “cut man.” A cut man, evidently, is the person in the boxer’s corner whose job is to stop the blood from flowing for as long as it takes to get the fighter back out there.
Frankie doesn’t want Maggie in his gym, because she’s a woman and because, as he explains to her, she’s too old to start training to become a boxer. She won’t listen. She punches the bag every day, and is still there when everyone else has gone. Eventually, out of pity, Frankie starts to show her a few things.
In one sense, all this is very much the usual when it comes to sports movies (and “uplifting” movies of a hundred other milieus). Maggie is the spunky, unlikely dreamer in whom nobody else believes. Frankie is the reluctant mentor, who finds the youngster absurd at first but eventually becomes a kind of surrogate father. There’s even the “training montage,” the hoary boxing-movie standby in which the passing of time is condensed and we see the boxer get better and better. But those montages are always set to inspirational music. This one is accompanied by a single, almost mournful country guitar. As in other movies he’s made, Eastwood (who directed) takes conventional storytelling elements and does things with them that convince you that you’re looking at real life.
Swank is very good, but as actors, it’s Eastwood and the great Morgan Freeman, as Frankie’s old friend and fellow boxing casualty, who give “Million Dollar Baby” its richness and its sorrow. (In the end, it’s not what most people would call “uplifting.”) Both of these actors are 70 years old, give or take several years; some of the exchanges between their characters have the kind of high comedy you sometimes see in a contented elderly couple. But they also have the haunted authority of people who’ve lived long enough to experience bad things, and who don’t propose to talk about them ―people who know what life comes to in the end. Boxing, a way of life that eats up even its winners and is seldom chosen by people who’ve got other options, is bound to produce that kind of story. It’s a wonder that anyone ever made a boxing movie where people cheered at the end.
Million Dollar Baby
Drama / English
by David Moll