Million Dollar Baby
dir. Clint Eastwood
Opens Fri Jan 7.

If like me you found yourself feeling severely burned by all the praise heaped upon Clint Eastwood's last film, the abominably over-baked Mystic River, the good news is that Million Dollar Baby is a quality piece of work. It's not a masterpiece by any means, and it's not really a denouement to Eastwood's career, as some critics have called it (that title still belongs to Unforgiven), but it has a calm, patient beauty that's hard to imagine anyone but Eastwood being able to conjure.

Hilary Swank stars as Maggie Fitzgerald, a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks (her family's not just trash, it's a landfill) who desperately holds on to a dream of being a boxer. A waitress by day, Maggie spends all her free time at a rundown boxing gym owned by Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), a trainer haunted by his failure to throw in the towel when his friend, and now employee, Scrap (Morgan Freeman), lost an eye during a pounding in the ring. Both Frankie and Scrap have reached dead ends, and the arrival of Maggie sends their lives into chaos--especially Frankie, who finds himself guilted into trying to turn her into a professional fighter on the women's boxing circuit.

As sappy and Lifetime-y as all this sounds, Eastwood's skill with the performers keeps Million Dollar Baby afloat. Both Swank and Freeman deliver graceful turns that mesh perfectly with Eastwood's grave brooding, and by the time the film takes a brutally tragic turn you can't help but find yourself yanked along emotionally. Eastwood still keeps his films criminally under-lit, and his editing still plods, but his actors help to keep Million Dollar Baby burning bright.

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