by J.D. Vena
I've never been much of a
In fact, I've often been accused of overrating movies. But I'd be
overrating Clint Eastwood's latest film, Million Dollar Baby, if I told
you it should have been considered for an Oscar. How it stole America's heart is
almost as incredible as how it stole several Oscars, including Best Picture. In
fact, this movie -- which some are hailing as the undisputed king of all boxing
movies -- wasn't in any way more credible than Undisputed.
Let me start by saying that it kills me to write this. Anyone who knows me is
well aware that I'm a huge Eastwood fan.
is my all-time favorite movie and one of the first DVDs I purchased. I
for its realism, its story, and its acting.
David Webb Peoples,
did a tremendous job of portraying a gun fighter and adding the character's
conscience to the story. He had researched the history of the most notorious gun
fighters and created a completely authentic tale, something more believable than
your typical western.
Dollar Baby was the antithesis of
Its poor portrayal of the Sweet Science is what jeopardizes the story, which is
why many who are familiar with boxing were unimpressed or even turned off by
One noted scribe who knows a thing or two about boxing, let alone writing and
screenwriting, is CyberBoxingZone.com's Lucius Shepard. "Pick a boxing cliche,"
wrote Shepard in a
published by ElectricStory.com. "The grizzled trainer,
the mutilated and/or impaired fighter, the plucky young fighter from the wrong
side of the tracks, the implacable, indomitable Ivan Drago-like nemesis,
has them all, bleeding the stuff of a hundred awful boxing movies into a Force
Five tearjerker that, though it's not without its virtues, is exactly the sort
of pretentious garbage that acts like Viagra on the members of the Academy."
In a conversation with the CBZ, Shepard mentioned that when writing a sports
script, the writer shouldn't get too technical but the story should be
was a perfect hockey movie," said Shepard. "Though it was a comedy, it was a
story that fit into a sport of hockey. The locker-room scenes in
were very much what hockey, particularly in the minor leagues, is all about."
(I happen to know minor-league-hockey goon Chad Wagner, who last week was
banned for life from the United Hockey League for pulling an opposing coach off
the bench. I'm convinced he is Ugee Ogilthorpe, at least one of the many.)
continue, I'd be remiss if I didn't write SPOILER ALERT. This, according to
review etiquette, means read no more if you don't want to know the outcome of
the movie -- or you can interpret this warning as "Continue reading and save
you may have read or seen, Eastwood plays trainer Frankie Dunn, while Hilary
Swank plays boxer Maggie who, despite being exceptionally beautiful, decides to
use boxing as a way to advance economically and as a way of feeling special in
the redneck world that Hollywood paints these days. Frankie, after originally
refusing to acknowledge Maggie's enthusiasm and downtrodden plight, decides to
go against his ways of not coaching only girlies and takes her under his wing.
One of these reasons also has to do with the fact that Frankie hasn't spoken to
his daughter in years, and the letters he writes to his estranged daughter,
which is his own way of finding himself, are always returned. We also learn that
Maggie's father passed away when she was young, and it's clear that this
unlikely partnership fills obvious gaps. Both for the first time are discovering
and embrace the concept of family while they build Maggie into a fighting
machine. As Shepard observes, "That they fill a certain need in each other's
lives is all-too-frequently highlighted by the script, just in case we didn't
get it, by lines such as 'You remind me a lot of my daddy.' "
Maggie eventually becomes an exciting world-class boxer through some
unforgettable fight scenes until she is paralyzed from the neck down by an
illegal punch in her title match against Lucia Rijker's character, Billie "The
Blue Bear." From this bizarre fight scene until the closer, where Dunn puts her
to eternal rest, the remainder of the film shows the quandary of her no longer
wanting to fight to keep alive with her condition while Dunn refuses to give up
As Shepard says, "Almost everything in the movie was a shameless grab for
audience sympathy." But its pivotal attempted seize is nothing short of
disgraceful. When you watch a boxing movie, it's sometimes difficult to dismiss
what Hollywood uses to give it some flare. The utter violence in
or Raging Bull
could lead one to think, "No one could take that kind of punishment." Then
again, the wars between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward weren't all that different,
in terms of a human's capacity to absorb physical punishment.
That kind of mockery is forgivable and fun to watch for moviegoers. Even the
young men that were used for the gym scenes in Baby were tolerable. So
what if it didn't look as though any of them had ever actually hit a heavy bag
in their lives? Maybe it was hard to find a handful of local boxers to be
stand-ins. Heck, Hilary Swank actually looked better than all of them at
everything she was doing, whether it was hitting the speed bag or jumping rope.
But what went on in the boxing scenes, in terms of some of the mechanics, which
ultimately set up its shocking climax, is what many have a problem with.
Early in Maggie's career, it's clear
that she's becoming a knockout artist. But Frankie does something unusual after
Maggie knocks out her opponents: He puts the ring stool into the ring, in her
corner, as though it's the end of a round. She immediately walks toward her
corner and sits on the stool. I kept wondering why this was happening. After a
fight, a stool is usually brought in for a knockout victim. But when a fight is
over, particularly for the winner, there is no stool. Why would a stool be
brought into the ring after a fight for the winner? Maybe if he or she had gone
14 hard rounds in Manila under sweltering hot lights and needed to sit down from
exhaustion. But Maggie was knocking everyone out in the first round.
Anyway, let me get to her title match with
Billie "The Blue Bear." As we would find out, Billie "The Blue Bear," who is
played by the G.O.A.T. of women's boxing, Lucia Rijker, lives up to her
reputation for dirty tactics, doing everything except kick and bite in this one.
Why they even used Rijker for this character is anyone's guess. In the first
round, Maggie has her way with Billie until a blatant elbow to the face by
Billie drops her. At the end of the round, the referee warns Billie's corner
that he'll take a point away if she continues to foul. That comment almost made
the film look like a slapstick comedy.
In the second round, the referee shows he's a
man or his word when he deducts a point from a foul that left Maggie on all
fours. While the referee is deducting a point, Billie decides to hammer Maggie
with a right cross for good measure. What? Why was this written into the script?
That kind of cheap shot would have resulted in a disqualification in a boxing
scene in a Naked Gun movie. Believe it or not, a second point wasn't
taken away for the infraction.
Between rounds Frankie tells his battered
fighter to punch Billie in the ass and "get her right in the sciatic nerve."
I'll say that again: Frankie told her to punch Billie in the ass. Like a good
student, Maggie gives it the ol' college try when she lands a few blatant
punches to Billie's ass, which ultimately set her up for the near knockout.
After administering a real ass whipping to Billie's front, the bell saves her.
(During this scene it also appears that the referee stopped the fight, because
he was waving his arms, which is usually the sign that the fight is over.)
I found this to be terribly confusing, because
at the same time, Frankie throws the stool into the ring as if the fight was
stopped, but as we found out, it was the end of the round. The smiles on the
faces of Maggie and Frankie were a sign that they were in better shape for round
four, but Lucia's character had other ideas. Billie outdoes herself and possibly
even James Butler when she hammers an unprotected Maggie from the side as she is
walking into her corner. Maggie falls toward her corner and breaks her neck over
If the movie's objective was to make the viewer
feel as miserable as possible, the movie throws another follow-up rabbit shot.
Now, I'm not suggesting losing a fight or losing in general for that matter
could compare to a life altering injury, but later in the movie, while Maggie is
bedridden and attached to a respirator, we find out that she actually lost
her fight with "Blue Bear." In the past few years we've seen such outrageous
travesties as Tyson's ear biting spree, Oliver McCall suffering a nervous
breakdown in the ring, and James Butler sucker-punching Richard Grant after
losing to him via decision. But in all of these headline embarrassments, the
proper if not somewhat of a suitable punishment or fine was ruled. In Tyson's
case, he was suspended from boxing for a year and had his purse withheld. McCall
saw his purse withheld and was soon readmitted to a mental facility. Butler was
immediately hauled off in cuffs and was convicted of a felony, while also being
suspended from the sport upon his release from prison.
We are led to believe that because Maggie
literally ended up on her back at the end of the night that she lost. How? By
TKO? I mean, hey, I guess she couldn't continue. The referee and clearly the
audience or broadcast crew saw what happened. That's like having an umpire from
The Natural reverse Roy Hobbs' walk-off homerun because the lights that hung
over right field were considered foul territory. Though boxing is known for some
of its shameful history, something like this, especially in this day and age and
in this country, would not and could not happen.
There are some states that rule that a fighter
cannot win by a foul, however, a loss for Maggie would have been the last ruling
on earth. More importantly, we were left to assume that no repercussions were in
order for Billie, that she was absolved from any wrongdoing despite leaving
Maggie paralyzed. The movie gave the viewer the idea that this sort of thing
happens in boxing all the time. After all, most casual fans know that Larry
Merchant always says: "Boxing is the theater of the unexpected"
What happens in this movie was truly unexpected but downright unbelievable. As
Shepard mentioned to me over the phone: "[Watching
Baby] was like watching a science-fiction
movie in which an astronaut in outer space removes his helmet for a moment to
take a deep breath."