Film review: “Million Dollar Baby”

Silly boxing wordplay need not apply to Clint Eastwood’s latest Oscar contender — a story deeply entrenched in the world of boxing, yet more a tale of life’s ups and downs set inside and outside the ring. “Million Dollar Baby” is no big revolution or revelation, but that doesn’t stop it from being a very good human drama.

Eastwood — who also directed and produced the film, as well as composed the score — plays Frankie, a gruff, hard-working trainer and L.A. gym owner. Frankie reluctantly takes on Maggie (Hilary Swank), a waitress from Missouri who admits she’s white trash and sees boxing as her way out. Scrap (Morgan Freeman), a one-time boxer now working and living in Frankie’s gym, narrates.

Coming off last year’s overrated “Mystic River,” Eastwood tones down the melodrama a bit, instead opting to simply turn the camera on three frazzled souls looking for something before it’s too late. Paul Haggis’ screenplay, based on stories from F.X. Toole’s “Rope Burns,” paints a portrait of the people rather than focusing only on what happens to them, so when something big finally does happen, it hits harder.

The film runs a little long and Swank’s trailer-park family is treated a little too stereotypically, but the joy of watching these characters unfold mostly overcomes these flaws. The three leading actors are terrific — Swank and Freeman rightfully are locks for Oscar nominations — and Eastwood does a good job of not over-directing. Tom Stern’s shadowy cinematography also stands out, as does Eastwood’s subtle score. Overall, “Million Dollar Baby” is a deeply involving piece of work that doesn’t — ahem — pull any punches.

–Patrick Dorsey