Clint Eastwood scores a knockout in this stately, intelligent and affecting drama of broken relationships and forced redemption set against a backdrop of boxing. Based on a story in F.X. Toole's Rope Burns, Million Dollar Baby sees grizzled old Clint playing Frankie Dunn, a fight trainer and manager who runs a well-worn gym in the LA urban wasteland. While overseeing the development of his best fighter, Frankie spends his days verbally sparring with his old friend Scrap (Morgan Freeman in fine form). Into this cosy little world wanders Maggie Fitzgerald (the excellent Hilary Swank), a 31-year-old waitress who dreams of becoming a fighter. Though Frankie is dubious - he doesn't train women and believes she's too old anyway - Scrap points Maggie in the right direction, helping her to channel her desire into something more tangible.
At first glance, the screenplay appears ridiculously second-hand, and cliche-ridden, yet Eastwood is so reassuringly natural with both the material and his characters that Million Dollar Baby supersedes any inconsistencies. Intimate but never forced, the drama smartly deals with three characters and their lifetime of struggles, neatly recounted by Eastwood. An actor's director, Eastwood gives Freeman and Swank plenty of time and space to fully inhibit their characters, but he's in devastating form himself - Frankie Dunn represents one of his best career performances and his evolution over two hours is remarkably affecting.
With the superlative Mystic River and now Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood has settled into a rich vein of form as he approaches the Indian summer of his career. Long may it continue.