Clint Eastwood's sentimental, old-fashioned boxing movie "Million Dollar Baby" arrived accompanied by such a chorus of critical hosannas that, sadly, moviegoers have little chance to discover its modest pleasures for themselves.
Despite Eastwood's limited gifts as a visual artist (which aren't helped by his being such a tightwad of a producer), reviewers worship him as a director because his 25 films are readily analyzable within the auteur theory, that system of intellectualized hero worship espoused by critics to make film history seem less chaotic than it really is.
In "Million Dollar Baby," Eastwood directs and stars as a grouchy Irish Catholic widower with the standard-issue heart of gold. Each morning, before checking in at The Hit Pit, the dilapidated L.A. gym he owns, he attends Mass to ask forgiveness for somehow driving away his only daughter.
The film is narrated portentously by the gym's wise and saintly old black janitor, played by -- you guessed it -- Morgan Freeman. This superb actor has long complained that, although he first broke through as a vicious pimp in 1987's "Street Smart," the public now won't let him play anything besides what Richard Brookhiser calls the "Numinous Negro." But he has only himself to blame for taking this role, a near-parody of the overly familiar Morgan Freeman Character.
Then, a perky Irish-American waitress, who is conveniently missing a father, shows up at the gym and asks Eastwood to train her. After some gruff dismissals, Eastwood finally takes her on and turns her into the #1 Contender, but the heartwarming main story is the father-daughter bond they forge.
Willowy starlet Hillary Swank, an Oscar-winner for "Boys Don't Cry," isn't exactly convincing as a boxer (the fight scenes appear to be shown in slightly fast motion to make her look quicker), but her exuberant presence is a delight. We never learn why such a cheerful, attractive lady wants to beat up other women because, when the ham-fisted script by Paul Haggis isn't telegraphing its emotional roundhouse punches, it's leaving much else unexplained.
In reality, women's boxing is a pseudo-feminist trashsport that briefly flourished in the 1990s when impresario Don King noticed that Mike Tyson fans got some kind of weird kick out of preliminary catfights between battling babes...
Female fisticuffs have faded recently due to the supply side problem of finding enough low-cost opponents for the handful of women stars. While the number of male palookas who will fight for next to nothing in the hope of becoming Rocky Balboa is ample, managers needing fresh meat for their female champs to bash frequently have to hire hookers and strippers to take dives -- and working girls don't work for free.
"Million Dollar Baby" simply ignores all this and asks you to believe that women's boxing today is a thriving duplicate of the men's fight game of a half century ago, which allows Eastwood to make a 1955-style boxing movie.
This offers some almost-forgotten payoffs, but Eastwood doesn't have the courage to make a genuinely out-of-fashion film.
When his protégé gets her neck broken by a dirty fighter, she asks him to kill her rather than make her live as a quadriplegic. His priest explains the Church is utterly opposed to euthanasia, which in a 1955 movie would have been the end of it. If, however, "Million Dollar Baby" had concluded with Eastwood's character helping her to find some new meaning in her life, as Christopher Reeve's wife did for the "Superman" star, the reviewers would have lambasted it as TV movie-fare. So, to the wild applause of the critics, he poisons her.
But the obvious question is left hanging: without his surrogate daughter to care for, what meaning will his life have for him?