Million Dollar Baby (2004)

So, I swear that when I planned to watch this the day after Rocky, I didn’t realize it was another boxing movie. Sure, I probably knew the basic premise at some point, but as I navigated from the Best Picture list to Netflix, I didn’t know what I was in for.

Actually, all I knew about Million Dollar Baby was from a random joke on The Office (which I didn’t get at the time, but turned out to be kind of a major spoiler). Even that hanging in the back of mind didn’t prevent me from loving this film.

As I’ve mentioned, I have a soft spot for boxing. I have an even softer spot for stories about misfits or loners who find each other. At its core, this was a love story. We never needed to learn the meaning of mo chuisle to know that it was a term of endearment. It’s fitting somehow that it’s expressed in a means both open to all and couched in secrecy, like an inside joke to which only Frankie knows the punchline.

Yes, there were some problematic moments. I really wish Maggie’s welfare-cheat family had a little more complexity to them, and that the issue of poverty (theirs and Maggie’s) was more than just a caricature. But I suppose it served the greater story, that of building a relationship between Frankie and Maggie. It’s a film that warrants re-watching, not because to catch the things you might have missed the first time around, but to appreciate moments of poignancy.

I enjoyed contrasting this film with Rocky, to see what a difference twenty years could make in a best picture. Both felt realistic, but also of their time. Boxing is kind of a man’s world, where the women can participate only if they prove themselves to be as masculine as the male heroes. Rocky had a feeling of allegory to it, like David facing Goliath or the Tortoise and the Hare. Million Dollar Baby had a sense of the fantastic to it, with its dramatic voiceover and the fairy-tale story of Maggie’s meteoric rise to stardom. One story of an unexpected rise, the other of a fall. It’s almost as if Million Dollar Baby is a sequel of sorts, not that Rocky really needed another one.

One of my favorite episodes of Battlestar Galactica featured boxing: “Unfinished Business.” It’s sort of a strange episode, half of it flashback, where not much of anything happens. The characters are in a sort of holding pattern, trying to come to terms with what they’ve just survived – the Cylon occupation on New Caprica. Naturally, they resolve their frustrations by beating the shit out of each other. And somehow, by the end of the episode, things have shifted a bit. They’ve regained some of their trust.

Boxing is a sport of trust. Trust in trainers and the people in your corner; trust in your own endurance and power. Rocky showed us the latter, trusting in your ability to carry on against the odds. Million Dollar Baby shows us the strength that can be found between a fighter and her trainer. Trust is love.

Theme:  Boxing

First Time Watching?  Yes

Loved it/Liked it/Hated it:  It was darling.


Rocky (1976)


Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a secret fascination with boxing. I’ve never really watched the sport much, to be honest, and don’t understand the strategies or the scoring rules. Despite that, it still has a hold on me.

Probably my first boxing-related memory was of watching an episode of the Twilight Zone, in which a down-on-his-luck boxer gets in the ring with a robot. Though it wasn’t intended as horror, something about that episode terrified me. Maybe I was too young, or my imagination ran with the impossibility of man battling machine. Even then something in me understood the fundamental truth of boxing, that the odds are always against you.

In middle school, we did an icebreaking exercise in which everyone filled out a list of our favorite things and then found matches among our classmates. I guess I didn’t understand the purpose of the activity beforehand, but I wrote boxing as my favorite sport – and didn’t find anyone else who agreed. Was I just trying to be contrary? I could have said baseball and it would have been more truthful. That must be the pull of boxing – something about it gets under your skin, opens you up like a good punch. Even if you hate it, you still kind of love the pain.

Fighting, in a way, is not a sport, but something more fundamental, baser and beastly. Boxing appeals to that animal instinct inside us all, makes you want to prove yourself, prove that you could survive battle.

Rocky is one of those films that is so well-known that you don’t need to have seen it to know the basic story: down-on-his-luck boxer (is there any other kind?) gets a once-in-a-lifetime shot to prove himself, and even when he loses, he’s still better for it. Admittedly, if I didn’t already know the ending, I don’t think I would have realized that Rocky didn’t win the decision. The ending was a little confusing. On the bright side, I’ve been to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, so it was nice to actually watch the scene that inspired that statue of Rocky on the steps outside.

For the most part, I enjoyed this film. The characters felt like real people, though I had a little trouble figuring out the deal with Adrian. First she’s mousy and silent, and then suddenly she takes off her glasses and is a babe? And I don’t remember a single thing she said, except at the end when she declares her love for Rocky. That’s the real victory, of course – love conquers all.

Boxing used to be a national sport. Now it’s relegated to a few pay-per-view matches for the big-name heavyweights, overshadowed by even bloodier sport, like MMA fighting. In 1976, though, I suppose it was still clinging to the American consciousness, just as Rocky held out hope that he might eventually get his shot. And still it lingers, because some of us still like a good fight.

Of course, even Rocky is still going. There is, after all, a new movie out, Creed. Maybe I’ll watch it at some point, but then, I’ll first have to work my way through Rocky II-V (and beyond?).

A few years ago, I took some boxing classes at a local gym. It wasn’t really fighting, only the workout that a boxer would go through in training: jumping rope, heavy bag, speed bag, combination drills, burpees, ab work. I liked it, but I never really got fit enough to be any good at it, and after a few months, my knee couldn’t handle all the stairs and stresses. I wasn’t cut out to be a boxer, even as a hobby. There’s still a part of me that would like to go back to it, shed some pounds, build some muscle, and maybe I will if I can protect the parts that hurt.

But boxing requires endurance. Persistence. The belief that you are a conqueror. Or at the very least, that no matter how much of a beating you take, you can still stay on your feet.

Theme:  Boxing

First Time Watching?  Yup.

Loved it/Liked it/Hated it:  Yo!