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A stealthy knockout punch Clint Eastwood's latest film may seem at first like just another Rocky-style fight-movie cliché. It's much more

Clint Eastwood's latest film may seem at first like just another Rocky-style fight-movie cliché. It's much more

Million Dollar Baby

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Written by Paul Haggis

Starring Clint Eastwood,

Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank

Classification PG

Rating: ***

Clint Eastwood's new boxing movie is like a title bout that goes through seven rounds of friendly push and poke before exploding into a knockout combination. The viewer is lulled into a false sense of security and ends up bruised and stunned. Some viewers may even feel sucker-punched by the narrative twist, though that's not Eastwood's intent. As with last year's Mystic River, his aim is to chart the ironies that fall between dreams and consequences.

Compared to the solemnity of Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby initially feels comic. The script, by Canadian TV writer Paul Haggis (whose directing debut, Crash, will be released next year), is based on a short story by F.X. Toole, from his collection, Rope Burns: Tales of the Corner. For at least the first two acts of its clear three-act structure, Million Dollar Baby plays like an old-fashioned, hackneyed fight fable in the Rocky tradition: A washed-up fight manager rediscovers his purpose in life through a disadvantaged kid with the outsized heart and a hammer for a left hook.

With his trademark spare, unfussy direction and jumping into the story approach, Eastwood subtly establishes the themes of faith, loss and love and then he raises the drama to a different level. He also stars in the film, as an old boxing trainer, named Frankie Dunn. Most of the action takes place in his well-worn gym called the Hit Pit, somewhere in Los Angeles. The story is partly told in a gravelly voice-over by the club's janitor, a former fighter called Scrap (Morgan Freeman).

Boxing, says Scrap, is about respect: Getting it for yourself and taking it away from someone else.

Scrap lost an eye years before when Frankie was his corner man. Together, they work side by side like an old married couple, mixing bickering affection with sharp barbs. The Hit Pit is a shrine to faded glories. The colour palette emphasizes wan yellows, browns and pale blues, as if its last paint job hasn't been freshened in 40 years. Even the characters seem like stock types from some 1940s fight film.

The story concerns Frankie's emotional rebirth, when he is persuaded to train Maggie (Hilary Swank), a young waitress from a poor Ozark background who is, for private reasons, determined to learn to fight. His Million Dollar Baby becomes both a surrogate daughter and a potential champion.

Swank, whose best performance was her Oscar-winner in Boys Don't Cry, again captures that quality of radiant, childlike trust. She calls Frankie "boss," and his eventual devotion to her is entirely paternal.

Though ornery and isolated, Frankie shows a few signs that there's more to him than meets the eye. He makes a daily visit to mass, mostly to annoy the priest about matters of doctrine. The priest, who tells him not to bother coming, provokes him back by asking about his estranged daughter.

Frankie has no other family but he is struggling to connect to his Irish roots by learning Gaelic and reading the poetry of Yeats.

When Frankie tells his fighters, "Always protect yourself," he's also reciting his private mantra for keeping guilt and fear away. As a manager, it's limiting. Early in the film, his prize contender ditches him because of Frankie's reluctance to give him a title shot. Then Maggie enters the picture and his hard shell is vulnerable.

After an extended cat-and-mouse game, where Maggie pushes to have Frankie become her manager and he resists, he finally decides to help her out.

After training her, he begins, gingerly, to arrange some bouts. In a series of comically short matches, she swarms her opponents, winning most fights by knockout in the first round. Then in a rapid succession of scenes, she goes to Europe to fight a series of matches. She returns to the United States, a contender and a major draw.

Gradually we learn about what makes Maggie fight so hard. She has spent her life, as Scrap tells us, being told she's "trash," coming from an Ozark family of welfare cheaters, jailbirds and social parasites. (The family, when they appear, seem grotesque and cartoonish, a low blow in a film that focuses on human dignity.) Maggie's breath-taking rise through the ranks strains credibility as the story pushes forward into the third act, but the sense of remorseless energy sets us up for the finale.

Not much can be said about the third act of Million Dollar Baby without compromising its impact, but it's a demonstration of why Eastwood has come to be one of the most venerated of American directors. Essentially, the ending is like a musical movement that recapitulates and deepens the established themes in a new, darker key. Eastwood, who has forged his limited expressiveness into a concise style, acts with moving understatement in the final scenes, steering close but staying clear of outright sentimentality. As with his direction, his performance is a study in saying more with less.

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