The bloodletting, an obligatory element in all boxing stories, takes a backseat to the unforgettable heartache in director Clint Eastwood's sports melodrama, Million Dollar Baby, by far the most satisfying Hollywood release of the past year. Granted, the physical violence 31-year-old female boxer Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank in another dynamite performance) encounters as she fights her way to a woman's title match is constant, brutal and ultimately shocking.
Yet Eastwood, working from Paul Haggis' adaptation of author F.X. Toole's Rope Burns stories, surprises us with his most heartfelt performance as Frankie Dunn, the grizzled manager who reluctantly takes Maggie under his wing. Eastwood's macho presence and gravelly voice is familiar, but Dunn shows a sadness and yearning for love never seen in Eastwood before. Everything about Million Dollar Baby is masterfully accomplished (especially cameraman Tom Stern's painterly use of light and shadows), but we've also come to expect that from Eastwood.
What's exciting and refreshing is Eastwood's knack for teary melodrama. He builds Maggie's journey to a climax that lifts audiences from their seats — and then delivers a soulful, haunting coda. (Steve Ramos) Grade: A+