Even before Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby won the Oscar for Best Picture, it united critics across the spectrum, from middlebrow to aesthete, in almost universal praise. It was "nearly flawless," "a breathtaking human drama," "the cinematic equivalent of Hemingway." This consensus was challenged by only a few scattered naysayers, who described the film as "celluloid hooey," "phony, simplistic, and cheap," and "a compendium of every cliché from every bad boxing movie ever made."
The maddening thing about Million Dollar Baby is this: Both sets of critics were right. The movie is simultaneously conventional and subversive, broad and nuanced, shamelessly manipulative and genuinely moving, a cheap sucker punch and a work of real moral weight. By chance or design, Eastwood produced a true rarity: a hackneyed masterpiece.
Released on video today, Million Dollar Baby spends its first 90 minutes telling that most familiar of boxing stories, about the scrappy, down-and-out young fighter who, with nothing but heart and the help of a crusty trainer, rises all the way to a title bout for the world championship. The film's quirk, and it's not a terribly imaginative one, is that the boxer is a woman. (Now, a movie about a fighter who was well-to-do, that would be an interesting deparature.) Maggie Fitgerald (Hilary Swank) is a 31-year-old waitress from the Missouri Ozarks who shows up in the L.A. gym of former "cut man" and part-time trainer/manager Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), and essentially refuses to leave until he agrees to train her. He holds out for a while, offering one or another gruff variation on the theme "I don't train girls." But eventually he gives in, moved by her obvious spunk and by gentle prodding from his avuncular, blind-in-one-eye janitor, "Scrap" (Morgan Freeman). Within a year, Maggie has learned foot- and fist-work, has honed her body to a lethal leanness, and has begun winning pro bouts, most of them by knockout. Eighteen months into her partnership with Frankie, she is fighting for the WBA welterweight title of the world and she has her opponent on the ropes.