Million Dollar Baby

Clint Eastwood’s new film shows the barbarity of boxing, but ignores its nobility.

Million Dollar Baby is the latest film directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. Eastwood is Frankie, the owner of a boxing gym; Maggie, played by Hilary Swank, is a thirtysomething female boxer who comes to Frankie to find a trainer to take her all the way to the top. The film looks as though it is going to be successful at the Oscars, and Hilary Swank has already picked up a Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actress.

Million Dollar Baby is being hailed as a great piece of filmmaking - but what sticks out most about the film is the brutality of boxing. It shows the seamier side of boxing - the blood and gore, the dirty tricks used to injure opponents, the ways in which trainers patch fighters up so that they can carry on - and highlights the damage that boxers suffer in the ring. Although the film touches on the hope that boxing offers to the fighters, the emphasis is on the sport’s destructiveness.

On a personal level, Million Dollar Baby is a powerful account of one woman’s determination to make it in the world of boxing. After overcoming his resistance to training a woman, Frankie finds the relationship that he has been missing with his daughter, who doesn’t even acknowledge his letters.

But if you compare Million Dollar Baby with films like Raging Bull (1980), it is notable that today’s boxing films concentrate on the dark, damaged aspect of the sport rather than its truly inspiring elements. The fight scenes in Eastwood’s film are far more brutal and graphic than the artistic, black-and-white shots of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull.

The Noughties has a feeble view of the individual, and tends to dwell on the experience of suffering rather than victory. Eastwood delivers a knockout blow to whatever respect boxing had left, and the film chimes with those who criticise boxing for its violence. The viewer leaves wondering whether for Maggie it really has all been worth it.

Although boxing has always been a brutal and degrading sport, films like Raging Bull and When We Were Kings (1996) managed to convey something of the beauty as well. In When We Were Kings - the tale of the heavyweight fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman that became known as ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ - Ali endured round after round of punishment from Foreman. He adopted the ‘dope on the rope’ technique and let Foreman punch himself out. At the end of the fight, when Foreman was exhausted, Ali delivered a single knockout blow. The power of the moment has become immortalised on posters, because it symbolises everything that boxing is about.

Million Dollar Baby is a powerful piece of cinema, and Eastwood and Swank may well pick up an Oscar. But ultimately this is a film that dwells on the dark side of boxing rather than the hope that it inspires.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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