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Million Dollar Baby

Three people have won an acting Oscar in one of the lead categories for playing a professional athlete. Robert de Niro in Raging Bull, Wallace Beers in The Champ, and Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby. Only one of those movies won best picture. It was the fourth sports movie to win the big prize after Rocky, Chariots of Fire, and Gladiator. (I know Forrest Gump involves football, From Here to Eternity involves boxing, and Hamlet involves fencing, but not enough to count as a proper sports movie).

Well, Million Dollar Baby is kind of a sports movie. It turns out to be a sports movie, a girl power movie, and a pro-euthenasia movie all wrapped up in one. As a sports movie it works, in fact it works great. It hits all the great sports movie themes like the scrappy underdog, the montage of lesser opponents, and the big fight at the end.

As a girl power movie and a right-to-die movie it really falls apart. The last half hour is dedicated to the search for Dr. Kevorkian. The attempt to cram three different themes into one movie is a bit troubling. It makes the whole thing seem uneven and seeing the main character spending the last thirty minutes in a hospital bed begging to die undermines the movie’s appeal as a sports movie. I love this movie as a sports movie. The sequence of Maggie ripping through the competition like a young Mike Tyson is compelling and fun to watch. Seeing her die isn’t. Seeing the setup with its girl power message is also not as compelling. Most of us who live in the 21st century are used to the idea of women being equal. Most of us are also used to the idea that they occasionally possess more athletic ability than some lazy couch potato man (you know, like me), and even are quite good at boxing. It is plausible that trainer Frankie Dunn would be uninterested in training a woman, but is that really needed for the movie to take off. Stating that she’s too old to begin a boxing career, or seeing that she is some naive wannabe from the Ozarks who just rolled into town might be enough to create the needed obstacle to be overcome before the athletic career really gets going.

The boxing scenes are great though. Not many other movies get into the science part of the sweet science the way this one does. Watch Rocky or Raging Bull and you might get the idea that swinging your fist towards somebody’s chin was enough, but here we see Maggie getting trained in all aspects, like how to shift weight from foot to foot.

We also get a down and dirty view of what goes on between rounds. Frankie is a veteran cut-man and can do what it takes to buy one more round, as he does when Maggie suffers a broken nose. Frankie tells her it will start gushing blood all over the front row in 20 seconds, giving her only that much time to deliver a knockout, which she promptly does.

The acting is pretty good, and from watching Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood interact you’d think they’d been co-staring in one movie after another for the past 20 years. Actually it’s only the second time they’ve shared the screen. The first was Unforgiven, which also won best picture back in 1992. The scenes they have together provide some nice levity. More so than the clueless boxer named Danger who is only in there for laughs and seems tacked on and unnecessary.

Though good, it is a flawed movie, and during the entire hospital sequence I kept checking my watch, a sure sign it could have been cut down, or done away with entirely. For better fare from 2004, you have two notable comedies. Sideways, which got a best picture nomination, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which did not. Hotel Rwanda was the only other notable movie from 2004 which is truly great, and Don Cheadle losing the best actor Oscar to Jamie Foxx is an absolute crime. Ray, Finding Neverland, and The Aviator were all good, but just as flawed as the eventual champ. Sideways was perfect. There isn’t a wrong note in the entire movie, and it accomplishes the multiple tasks of making us root for the protagonist and learn a little something about wine. I can watch boxing, even female boxing, without thinking of Million Dollar Baby, but I will never drink a pinot noir without thinking of Sideways. If Million Dollar Baby were just a sports movie maybe it would be different, because as a sports movie it’s great. But when you add in all the other stuff, the whole works fall apart.

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