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Million Dollar Baby

As a director, Clint Eastwood isn't known for his fancy footwork. The camera doesn't dance around very much, and neither do the plots. Instead, his films gently bob and weave, accumulating points toward a split decision. Eastwood would never go for a knockout - too show-offy. But when he hooks up with the right story and the right actors, the effect is the same: us flat on our backs, stars circling our heads. Mystic River didn't quite get the job done, in my opinion - too much tragedy, not enough pulp. But Million Dollar Baby, which is set in the sweat-stained world of professional boxing, where one day you're scrounging around for bus fare and the next day you're splitting a million-dollar purse, has just the right worn-leather smell. It stinks real good.

Eastwood, looking every one of his 74 years, is Frankie Dunn, a boxing trainer and gym owner in L.A. who's grown cautious over the years, Irish Catholic guilt eating away at him like a leech. There's been trouble with a daughter, whom Frankie's written to once a week for 23 years, only to have the letters appear on his doorstep, returned to sender, a few days later. And to its credit, the movie never introduces us to the daughter, never even explains the rift, just quietly goes about the business of showing us how a believer could lose his faith - in God, in boxing, in life - and yet show up again the next day, ready to take another swing. With his blue-steel eyes and well-weathered face, Eastwood remains a captivating screen presence, but this time he's also taking us beyond those eyes, showing us the man behind the squint.

Yes, he cries, which may never have happened on-screen before. The reason for this outpouring of emotion - well, it doesn't pour out so much as dribble out - is Maggie Fitzgerald, an Arkansas redneck who hopes to redeem her hardscrabble life inside a boxing ring. As played by Hilary Swank, Maggie is a hillbilly with a heart of gold, and you resist the performance at first - a little too Jubilation T. Cornpone. But Swank soon wins you over, just as Maggie soon wins Frankie over, with her sheer moxie. "Girly, tough ain't enough," Frankie tells Maggie when she asks him to train her, and it isn't that she won't take no for an answer, it's that she takes no for an answer, then shows up again the next day, ready to take another swing. With nothing to lose, she's totally prepared to go a full 15 rounds with Frankie.

Eastwood and Swank put on a nice little sparring match, Maggie finally wearing Frankie down. And then the movie goes into an eye-of-the-tiger sequence as Frankie shows Maggie the ropes and Maggie shows Frankie that boxing's still the best way to resolve life's deepest conflicts. Also part of the team is Morgan Freeman as Scrap, a former boxer who keeps the gym in working order and sleeps on a cot in the back room. Scrap also narrates, the nuggets of wisdom piling up like so many sweat towels, but Freeman has a way of making eternal truths seem freshly minted. And the scenes between him and Eastwood are a championship bout of comic understatement, each of them seeming to have studied the other's moves for decades. With dialogue itself a dying art, you don't get to witness this kind of rapport very often.

As Maggie works her way to the top, knocking out so many opponents in the first round that it becomes hard to find anyone who's willing to fight her, the movie settles into an enjoyable Rocky groove. But, come to find out, we're being set up for the biggest sucker punch of all time. I won't give away the plot twist here except to say that it seems like both a cheap shot and a bold move, the kind of thing you'd expect from a chump or a champ. That Eastwood handles it with such delicacy suggests that he's the latter. Regardless, we're suddenly thrust into a different kind of boxing movie, one where grit and determination don't necessarily pay off in the final round. As he did for westerns with Unforgiven, Eastwood quietly reinvents a genre while seeming to adhere to all the old guidelines.

Million Dollar Baby is based on a short-story collection by F.X. Toole called Rope Burns. Unpublished until he was in his 70s, Toole certainly knows his way around a ring, and Paul Haggis, who combined two of the stories into a seamless whole, certainly knows his way around a script. I have only a couple of reservations. The portrayal of Maggie's family, inherited from Toole, seems stereotypically demeaning; you don't have to live in a trailer to be that trashy. And it's a bit of a stretch that Frankie, in his spare time, is learning Gaelic. But the movie is otherwise so comfortable in its own skin, never forcing anything, always waiting for an opening, that you find yourself admiring its grace even while it's thoroughly working you over.

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