Tuesday, January 18, 2005


Movie Review: Million Dollar Baby.

Some people, like Roger Ebert, are calling Million Dollar Baby the best film of 2004.

Others, like this anonymous reviewer from Ain't Cool News (h/t Jen) hate the film, calling it nothing more than a collection of recycled cliches.

So, who's right, who's wrong?

After seeing it today, my opinion is definitely closer to Ebert's-- you can read his spoiler-free review here. I don't think it's quite as great as he says, but it is an excellent film indeed.

Is it cliched? Let me ask you this: do you dismiss the one hundredth rose you see as a cliche? Do you scoff at your thousandth sunset as the product of a cosmic hack? Clint Eastwood works with cliche like Vermeer works with light. Eastwood is who he is, and he makes films that are his alone.

Some of his films are incredible-- Unforgiven, Mystic River-- while others are abject disappointments-- Bloodwork. Still, to criticize Million Dollar Baby for cliche is like criticizing a painter for using reds and blues. Any painter can do it, but only the great ones know how to mix the colors onto a canvas.

Is Million Dollar Baby predictable? Somewhat, given how there are only two possible endings for a sports movie: good, or bad. The film is not really a sports movie, however; the boxing, while exciting, feels fairly tawdry. Even the biggest fights of Swank's career look as if they're fought in a rusted out South Side gym, not on worldwide HBO.

Yet, in the end, the boxing is incidental. Instead, Baby uses boxing to tell a story about three people, their choices, and the consequences of their choices. Hillary Swank could be a chess prodigy, a roller derby queen, or the Glutton Bowl champ-- the story is about her competitive desire, and what price her drive exacts on herself, and her mentors.

The film is both happy and sad, thrilling and tragic, urgent and poignant. The characters are broad sketches, some admittedly too broad (Swank's white trash family, for one), but the three leads do outstanding work inhabiting their roles. Yes, the audience knows that's Clint Eastwood up there, playing the kind of guy Clint Eastwood always plays. But so what? If the story calls for Clint Eastwood to play that guy, I'd rather have Clint sleepwalking through the part than some Baldwin brother in makeup overact. Ditto Morgan Freeman, who-- guess what?-- plays the kind of guy Morgan Freeman always plays.

The true revelation here is Swank. I wasn't a fan of Boys Don't Cry, and I've only seen her in minor parts elsewhere, such as in Insomnia. And, oh yeah, who can forget that modern American classic, The Next Karate Kid? In Baby, however, Swank is fantastic. Scrappy and eager, yet vulnerable, she's more than a match for her veteran costars. Oh, and that funky droopy face of hers aside, Swank looks dynamite with a six-pack.

My advice? Don't listen to anyone else, whether they loved it or hated it. And especially, DON'T let anyone spoil the twists and turns in the movie for you. Again, there are no real surprises in the film, but the visceral feeling of surprise and shock must matter plenty to your enjoyment.

If you appreciate a good film, see it for yourself, and make up your own mind. If you've seen twenty movies in the past year, I can guarantee you've seen at least fifteen or more inferior to Million Dollar Baby. Give it a chance.

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