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Laid bare in the ring

Times Staff Writer

What can be said about Clint Eastwood that hasn’t been said before?

That he’s American film’s last and best classicist, a 74-year-old director who’s aged better than a “Sideways” Pinot Noir? That his increasingly fearless and idiosyncratic choice of material has made him more of an independent filmmaker than half the people at Sundance? That he continues to find ways to surprise audiences yet remain inescapably himself? It’s all true, and never more so than in Eastwood’s latest, “Million Dollar Baby.”

Perhaps the director’s most touching, most elegiac work yet, “Million Dollar Baby” is a film that does both the expected and the unexpected, that has the nerve and the will to be as pitiless as it is sentimental. A tale of the power and cost of dreams set in the unforgiving world of professional boxing, it’s got some of the emotional daring of the great melodramas of Hollywood’s golden age, when films considered it a badge of honor to wear their heart on their sleeve.

“Million Dollar Baby” also reconfirms what “Mystic River” and its Oscars for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins made clear: that Eastwood, despite his legendary no-nonsense style, has become a gifted director of actors. It’s not just the exceptional work by costars Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman that stands out here, it’s Eastwood’s own performance, in some ways the most nakedly emotional of his 50-year career.

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As with “Mystic River,” Eastwood has started with commanding material, a debut collection of short stories by the late F.X. Toole called “Rope Burns,” which was published in 2000 when its author, a trainer and licensed cut man for more than 20 years, was 70 years old. A writer whose knowledge of boxing was matched by his lean skill with words, Toole, like Eastwood, was a traditionalist who saw value in the old ways.

Paul Haggis, a writer with extensive television credits, including creation of the acclaimed “EZ Streets,” adroitly combined two of Toole’s stories into the “Million Dollar” script, using the narrator of one to tell the tale of the second and fleshing it all out with touches that rarely seem extraneous to the story’s main drive.

Eastwood, who has perhaps the best eye in the business for the kinds of roles an aging star should be playing, is Frankie Dunn, a trainer and manager who owns a ramshackle gym in downtown L.A. all too appropriately named the Hit Pit.

Cantankerous as well as querulous, Frankie Dunn still manages a contender or two, but his reluctance to push his top man for a title fight speaks to a sense of pulling back, of disconnecting from life. He is painfully but apparently permanently estranged from his only child, a daughter, and he only goes to church to wind up the priest. Studying Gaelic is his sole pleasure and, with a single exception, ring rust has formed on his personal relationships.

That exception would be his right-hand man, Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris (Freeman), an unflappable blind-in-one-eye former boxer who has run the Hit Pit day-to-day for 17 years. It’s Dupris’ extensive voice-over that gives us the context for the unfolding story, garnished with home truths about boxing gleaned from Toole’s stories.

Eastwood and Freeman not only share similarly laid-back styles, they’ve worked together before, in Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” Seeing them trying to genially out-underact each other is one of “Million Dollar Baby’s” most satisfying pleasures; a scene in which they share a conversation about, of all things, socks, is a master class in how understated acting can be used to magnificent effect.

Into this hermetic world comes Maggie Fitzgerald, a completely different type of person. A hardscrabble young woman well aware of her white trash background, Maggie has focused her entire life on a single goal: having Frankie Dunn mold her into the best fighter she can be. Boxing, she says, is “the only thing I ever felt good doing,” and giving up on that feeling is out of the question.

Both physically and psychologically, Swank, who put on 17 pounds of muscle during three months of boxing training, inhabits this role as she has no other since “Boys Don’t Cry,” for which she won an Oscar. Her Maggie has a feral intensity that combines with a heartbreaking eagerness and a megawatt smile to devastating effect. This is not an actress for surfacey roles; Swank’s gift is bringing complete believability to the most extreme, most willful and passionate of characters.

Maggie’s determination notwithstanding, Frankie Dunn, traditionalist that he is, does not believe in training women to box, calling it “the latest freak show out there.” He’s dismissive of her chances for success in the plainest language he can find. Of course, it’s a given, especially with the looming possibility of a surrogate father-daughter relationship, that Frankie will relent and take her on, but rather than being the end of their story, that is the merest beginning.

Like many directors who work into their 70s and beyond, Eastwood has made his style even more direct and pared down, focusing on what’s important, on telling the story he wants to tell in the most effective, most unadorned way. There’s nothing glib or trendy about “Million Dollar Baby”; the movie is in no hurry getting started, and it even takes a leisurely detour into the story of a fighter named Danger that it could have done without. But by the time Frankie and Maggie begin training together in earnest, we are completely invested in their story, willing to go with it no matter where it takes us.

Eastwood’s belief in and loyalty to a below-the-line team that has been with him for years is a key factor in his ability to work so efficiently and so well. Cinematographer Tom Stern has collaborated with him for more than 20 years, editor Joel Cox for nearly 30, and 89-year-old production designer Henry Bumstead has said, “I wouldn’t work for anybody else at this age.”

Whether Eastwood himself will want to be working that long is a fascinating question. If he were of a mind to go out on a classic high note, “Mystic River” would have been a good choice, but finding in “Million Dollar Baby” something that touched him, something he could handle beautifully, he went for it. Now, thanks to his great and ever-increasing skill, it touches us as well.

*

‘Million Dollar Baby’

MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, some disturbing images, thematic material and language.

Times guidelines: Considerable boxing violence, unsettling adult subject matter and situations.

Clint Eastwood...Frankie Dunn

Hilary Swank...Maggie Fitzgerald

Morgan Freeman...Eddie “Scrap-

Iron” Dupris

Warner Bros. Pictures presents, in association with Lakeshore Entertainment, a Malpaso/Ruddy Morgan production, released by Warner Bros. Producer-director Clint Eastwood. Producers Albert S. Ruddy, Tom Rosenberg, Paul Haggis. Executive producers Gary Lucchesi, Robert Lorenz. Screenplay by Paul Haggis, based upon stories from “Rope Burns” by F.X. Toole. Director of photography Tom Stern. Editor Joel Cox. Costume designer Deborah Hopper. Music Clint Eastwood. Production designer Henry Bumstead. Art director Jack G. Taylor Jr. Set decorator Richard C. Goddard. Running time: 2 hour, 12 minutes.

In selected theaters.


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