Skip to main content

Bleach smells like bleach.

Million Dollar Baby
(2004)

(SPOILERS) I’d like to be able to say it was beyond me how Clint’s misery-porn fest hoodwinked critics and the Academy alike, leading to his second Best Picture and Director double Oscar win. Such feting would naturally lead you to assume Million Dollar Baby was in the same league as Unforgiven, when it really has more in common with The Mule, only the latter is likeably lightweight and nonchalant in its aspirations. This picture has buckled beneath the burden of self-appointed weighty themes and profound musings, which only serve to highlight how crass and manipulative it is.

After I first saw the film, I did wonder if my profound distaste towards the whole spectacle wasn’t just a knee-jerk reaction to the euthanasia plotline being shoehorned into the last half hour, since despite Clint’s comments, it’s pretty clear getting wise old Morgan Freeman to do your voiceover offers a tacit endorsement of Maggie’s chosen way out of being condemned to a quadriplegic existence (by which, I’m not condemning the picture’s ultimate perspective, but I am the method it goes about getting there) . But I concluded, and this is reinforced by revisiting the picture, that it was actually a cumulative response to the crude devices and characterisations employed by screenwriter Paul Haggis throughout (he’d be at that kind of thing again in the following year’s Best Picture winner Crash; lest you think I’m entirely down on the guy, I thought In the Valley of Elah was pretty good, although I haven’t watched it a second time).

Credit to Clint, though, the predilections that can expose him badly – a ponderous, languorous approach to editing, an unfussy, some might say lazy, shooting style – lend themselves to making Million Dollar Baby seem more substantial than it is. He really takes his time – two and a quarter hours – to tell this story, because he knows what he’s inveigling is an elaborate rug pull, intended to snatch profound defeat from the jaws of success. Like he’s engineering the twisted, serious drama equivalent of an Eli Roth flick.

Aiding him is the aforementioned Freeman, whose rent-a-gravitas is basically The Shawshank Redemption redux (earning him an Oscar for his troubles, but why this movie, of all the ones that would have been more deserving recognition of his skills – I guess it’s testament to his making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so to speak, or forcing that bitter medicine down), spouting vacuous homilies, many of them concerning the art of boxing, like they’re nuggets of priceless wisdom. And Clint and Freeman do have a marvellously easy, freewheeling chemistry, no matter the quality of the material; if a movie, by their presence, keeps reminding you of Unforgiven and Shawshank, the dice is heavily loaded in its favour, straight off the bat (and further mixed metaphors to follow).

Of course, everyone remembers the last thirty minutes of Million Dollar Baby, but structurally and retrospectively, it’s abundantly clear that the entire piece is designed to bring Swank’s good-gal low; if this wasn’t played in such deadly earnest, it could only be read as parody. Scrap (Freeman) introduces Maggie with “She grew up knowing only one thing – she was trash” and Haggis proceeds to propound an almost Forrest Gumpian simplicity in her determination (there’s a problem here too, in that she is, by turns, simple and whip-smart, depending on what’s required in the scene). Her thirty-second birthday speech is excruciating (“If I’m too old for this, I’ve got nothing. Is that enough truth for you?”) The material is hard baked in corniness long before the nihilism comes to the fore in the last round, taking perverse pleasure in doing everything it can to undermine her upbeat persistence.

Her mother (the now ever-present Margo Martindale) and sister (Riki Lindhome) are utterly loathsome, responding to Maggie’s generosity with complaints and following it up by trying to sign away the girl’s earnings. The opponent (Lucia Rijker) in her fateful bout is ludicrously OTT in her relentless, dirty-fighting viciousness. And not content with making her quadriplegic, Eastwood and Haggis then have her lose a leg and bite off her tongue – seriously, Eli Roth must have beensoenvious. The movie would be written off as ridiculously excessive, revelling in its own sadism, if it hadn’t been so venerated.

We shouldn’t forget either that, while we have to witness Maggie’s suffering, the one who reallyagonises through all this is Clint’s Frankie. Million Dollar Baby is designed to reinforce Clint’s guilt-wracked hero narrative, the trainer who can never forgive himself for Scrap losing an eye, so goes to confession more frequently than any other member of his congregation and scrupulously avoids taking his boxers to prize level for fear of their safety. Maggie’s fate isn’t, in fact, about her – she’s a plaything to toss about – it’s about making a good man suffer. A good man who, following her mercy killing, nobly disappears, never to be seen again. How very, deeply poetic.

It also fits with Clint’s self-styled machismo – still going strong in The Mule at 88 with his threesomes – that there’s also very much a sexualised component, only further emphasised because Frankie is so thoroughly decent in that regard; Clint is still virile, Maggie is attracted to him (no other boxer would leap into their trainer’s arms like an impassioned teen cheerleader), but nothing could come of it because he’s like her father and she’s like his daughter.

Haggis has dutifully come armed with a shopping list of “character-building” flourishes for his lead, little star’s touches to endear him to the audience. So we have Clint being rude to his preacher – “You’re standing outside my church, comparing God to Rice Krispies?”; “Can you spare a few minutes for the immaculate conception?” – like it’s a bit of fun, until he ultimately has a serious heart to heart. This coming from a period when Haggis was still a devoted Scientologist is a bit rich. It’s also conflicted, with the preacher man cheaply reduced to swearing on first appearance, so riled is he by Frankie, but then allowed to offer his own advice (which Frankie ignores for Morgan’s humanist teachings; well, of courseyou’d listen to Morgan. His voice is tantamount to mind control).

Then there are the gym’s supporting characters (Jay Baruchel’s idiot wannabe boxer, Antony Mackie’s cruel talent and Michael Pena’s chirpy sparring partner), who appear to be needless filler up until the late-stage point when we realise their purpose; they’re there entirely to facilitate Scrap’s hero-moment reveal, doubtless retro-engineered that way (“Now I get to fight a retard and an old man”). The positive side of this retrospective visit is how many now well-known names are now inhabiting the fringes of the picture; besides those I’ve already mentioned, there’s Mike Colter as the boxer who finally leaves Frankie for the big leagues.

Of which, the fights are well-composed, such as they are, in no-nonsense Clint fashion – as with American Sniper, he knows what he’s doing with his action, but it’s to no avail if the surrounding material is fundamentally unsound. And Haggis provides the final capper in his movie of facile twists supporting its macabre cause; Scrap’s narration is a letter to Frankie’s estranged daughter (one of the letters that’s always returned unread). It’s a cruel world of unsung heroes where no one will know the true Frankie, the code he lived by, except us, the audience who have been let in on his secret (majesty).

Million Dollar Baby is at first glance achingly sincere. Actually, it’s acutely cynical. All you need to underline the tragedy of Maggie’s fate is a low-key piano, the one Eastwood mordantly tinkles away on to complete the effect; in Unforgiven, the soundtrack worked as a lyrical contrast to a life of savage violence. Here, it’s overkill, designed to beat you into submission. Which Million Dollar Baby did resoundingly. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see America coming out in droves to see you puke.

The Hard Way (1991) (SPOILERS) It would probably be fair to suggest that Michael J Fox’s comic talents never quite earned the respect they deserved. Sure, he was the lead in two incredibly popular TV shows, but aside from one phenomenally successful movie franchise, he never quite made himself a home on the big screen. Part of that might have been down to attempts in the late ’80s to carve himself out a niche in more serious roles – Light of Day , Bright Lights, Big City , Casualties of War – roles none of his fanbase had any interest in seeing him essaying. Which makes the part of Nick Lang, in which Fox is at his comic best, rather perfect. After all, as his character, movie star Nick Lang, opines, after smashing in his TV with his People’s Choice Award – the kind of award reserved for those who fail to garner serious critical adoration – “ I’m the only one who wants me to grow up! ”

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.