By Skip Bayless
Page 2

Allow me to disqualify myself the way Hilary Swank's final foe would have been disqualified in "Million Problem Baby."

At least, that's what I've renamed it.

But understand, I'm a frustrated movie critic. Only a Barry Bonds media session can frustrate me more than a movie that insults my intelligence while turning into a box-office smash or -- worse -- an Academy Award bandwagon. I get especially infuriated if the movie pretends to capture the inside essence of something I know a little about -- sports.

That's why I vow never to watch my favorite show of the year, Sunday night's Academy Awards, again if Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" wins Best Picture or Best Director or turns into this year's "Lord of the Rings" with an endless parade of acceptance speeches.

If "Baby" wins by knockout, I'm throwing in the towel.

The day it opened, I didn't rush out to see it. I'd caught the trailer, which gave off the faint odor of just another hokey sports movie. But because I'm fascinated by the not-so-sweet science and had the privilege of covering Ali's last five fights, I figured it was my duty to check out Clint's ring debut eventually.

That Friday night, I attempted to see another movie. Sold out. I was surprised to find that "Baby" wasn't. Then again, it had generated almost no Hollywood buzz.

I made it through about half of "Baby" before walking out.

That's right: I said no mas to a movie Sports Illustrated eventually would proclaim "the greatest fight film ever."

Maybe I've taken too many e-mail punches.

But my intelligence was sucker punched from the opening scene on. As we first see Swank, playing a boxer named Maggie Fitzgerald, she has just won her fight on the undercard of what you soon realize is a heavyweight contender's fight at the Grand Olympic in downtown Los Angeles. I know the building. It seats about 6,000, and as Maggie watches from the wings, it's packed with screaming fans.

A female boxer would have to be reasonably accomplished to get a shot on that undercard.

Eastwood, as Frankie Dunn, trains the heavyweight contender. After Frankie's fighter wins, Maggie waits for Frankie and begs him to train her. Of course, Frankie gruffly brushes her off with: "I don't train girls."

Yet Maggie shows up unannounced and unwanted at Frankie's hole-in-the-wall gym and starts trying to punch a bag. She looks as if she has never boxed before. Frankie and his right-hand man, Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris, played by Morgan Freeman, cringe at this pathetic sight.

But of course, Maggie hangs around day after day, ignoring Frankie's insults and pathetically punching that bag, until Frankie's heavyweight fires him and Frankie finally says, what the hell, he'll train the girl. They start from scratch, with Maggie taking on the weakest competition.

Time out: I'm supposed to suffer punch-drunk amnesia and forget that Maggie had won a fight on the undercard of a fighter one step from a heavyweight title bout?

If the movie had opened with Maggie walking into Frankie's gym in her waitress outfit and pathetically punching a bag, I'd have been intrigued. And if Clint's boxing dialogue hadn't been so stilted and the wisdom he imparted to Maggie so painfully hokey, I might have forgiven that opening plot device. Obviously, the screenwriters wanted you to see Frankie at his height so you could appreciate his plunge.

But that's what makes me crazy about overrated sports movies like "Bull Durham." They pander to the audience's superficial and romanticized perception. They're basically sports fairy tales. "Bull Durham" was filled with caricatures and exaggerated stereotypes, with fake Southern accents and silly dialogue, yet "Bull Durham" became a classic.

Bull-loney. Give me real.

Don't give me comic relief with a cartoonish character such as "Baby's" mentally challenged "Danger," who suffers delusions of grandeur along with the worst Texas accent in movie history. Don't give me Maggie's family living in a small Missouri town but sounding as though they're from Mississippi, just to make them seem more like trailer trash.

But of course, dear old Clint became rich and powerful by rarely overestimating his audience. As long as he was The Man With No Name in spaghetti Westerns, I loved him. "Dirty Harry" worked for the make-love-not-war generation because Dirty Harry said screw it, somebody's still gotta make war on the bad guys. "Unforgiven" had Oscar-worthy depth and mold-breaking Wild West conflict.

But in the ring, Eastwood has no ring of authenticity.

"Baby" wouldn't last a round with Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull," easily the best boxing movie. The first "Rocky" beats "Baby" by TKO. If you want a sports movie that "gets it" from the inside out, you want the smartest, funniest sports satire, "Caddyshack." If you want baseball movies that ring true, you want 1) "Eight Men Out" or 2) "The Natural," even though it turns into "The Supernatural."

But again, I disqualify myself. I'm now The Only Man on Earth Who Doesn't Think "Million Dollar Baby" Is Great.

The initial reviews I read liked but didn't love it. It didn't have a blockbuster opening weekend, nor is it anywhere near the year's biggest box-office hit. Yet somehow word-of-mouth momentum has built among critics and customers. It's as if one person gazed at an unclothed emperor and said: "My, what beautiful clothes." And slowly but surely, everyone else began to nod and agree.

But no, I'm not condemning a movie I saw only half of. I went back and watched the whole bloody mess from start to finish.

I disliked the second half even more than the first half. The first half was just a silly sports movie. The second half was a maudlin, manipulative, melodramatic B-movie.

Critics are saying Eastwood gives his "most emotionally raw" performance? Only because he finally cries on screen.

But for the record, I would not be devastated if Swank wins Best Actress or if Freeman wins Best Supporting Actor. Both rose above roles that defy nomination. Swank brings Maggie to life with a sweet toughness and a credible athleticism that cancel her bad Southern accent. Morgan's narration at least gives "Baby" some wise, witty mortar.

Still, if this thing beats "The Aviator" in a single category, I'm going down for the count. Scorsese made a big, bold Hollywood movie about a man who made big, bold '30s-Hollywood movies -- Howard Hughes. To think Eastwood could steal Best Director from a master, Scorsese, is sadly laughable.

Leonardo DiCaprio should edge out Jamie Foxx of "Ray" because DiCaprio got a little closer to nailing Hughes than Foxx did Ray Charles. Cate Blanchett was Katharine Hepburn. Both should win.

Comparing "Baby" and "The Aviator" is like weighing the merits of Chuck Wepner and Muhammad Ali. Hey, Wepner could really bleed. So can "Baby."

I'm probably wrong, but I've never heard of a trainer or cut man saving a fight by snapping a fighter's broken nose back in place so the bleeding would stop.

And I have never, ever heard of a fighter getting sucker punched as he (or she) walks back to her corner after a round, then falling against the stool the trainer has just placed back in the ring and breaking his (or her) neck.

That's what happens to Maggie during her big title fight. I'm not making this up.

Yet in the hospital, Frankie reminds her that, well, she lost. So does her heartless trailer-trash mother. Preposterous. Her opponent would have have been disqualified.

The mother is a sitcom parody. But instead of laughing out loud, people around me in the theater started crying when the Trailer Trash Mom pushes poor Maggie to sign away her boxing winnings.

And the Oscar goes to ... "Million Dollar Baby"? Oh, baby.

I think I'm going to cry.

Skip Bayless joined ESPN after a career as a sports columnist that includes stops in Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and San Jose. He can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears weekly on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.



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MILLION PROBLEM BABY