In late 2004 and 2005, film critics of all leanings began heaping superlatives on a quietly-paced film about boxing. Million Dollar Baby may not be the best movie of the year, but it contains some remarkable performances and is well worth the price of the ticket.

Written by Paul Haggis, adapted from short stories by F.X. Toole.
Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Clint Eastwood...Frankie Dunn
Hilary Swank.... Maggie Fitzgerald
Morgan Freeman...Eddie "Scrap Iron" Dupris
Jay Baruchel .... Danger Barch
Mike Colter .... Big Willie Little
Lucia Rijker .... Billie "The Blue Bear"
Brian O'Byrne .... Father Horvak
Anthony Mackie .... Shawrelle Berry
Margo Martindale .... Earline Fitzgerald
Riki Lindhome .... Mardell Fitzgerald
Bruce MacVittie .... Mickey Mack

The film’s first two-thirds explore familiar territory, but handle it so well that it doesn’t seem clichéd. Frankie Dunn, a crusty old trainer, has long been estranged from his daughter for reasons never explained. He has only his gym and his friendship with an aging former boxer, "Scrap Iron," who was blinded in his final bout and now lives in the gym and works for Frankie. Enter an underdog athlete, Maggie Fitzgerald, already too old for training and living an impoverished life. It’s not just that her job as a waitress provides but a meagre income; she has no apparent friends, no clear spiritual life, few ties with her family, and no interests outside of boxing. She joins Frankie’s gym, and asks him to train her.

He refuses. He doesn’t train girls.

We know what will happen here. Frankie is estranged from his daughter; Maggie has lost her father, the only familial relationship that meant anything to her. Gradually, the pair bond, and Frankie turns his surrogate daughter into a champion.

Hilary Swank, well-remembered for her gender-bending performance in Boys Don’t Cry, immerses herself entirely into Maggie, undertaking an actual training regiment and transforming herself into a pumped and plausible female boxer. Frankie dubs her Mo Guishle, and she becomes the wonder of the female boxing circuit, an affable champ who knocks her opponents out in the first round.

"Scrap Iron," meanwhile, plays sage advisor and sidekick. He helps out Maggie, but he also assists "Danger," an inept, mentally handicapped youth who wants to become a welterweight, and who draws negative attention from a swaggering bully who works out at the gym. Morgan Freeman demonstrates his remarkable ability to turn the most mundane of lines into seeming profundities. He is a Hollywood actor of Gregory Peck’s calibre, specializing in making the ordinary seem extraordinary.

This film does the same, taking its dirty, underlit settings and making them the stage for a powerful human drama about three stark, stripped-down lives.

In the final third, the film leaves the ring behind and moves into a territory of its own. Along the way it raises some disturbing and difficult questions. This segment should prove affecting to most audience members. I found it powerful, but I wish they would have explored Maggie’s options more thoroughly.

If actors of the first rank portray the film’s central trio, the secondary characters are generally two or one dimensional. The Blue Bear has no characteristics beyond malevolence. Maggie‘s family are despicable, white trash caricatures– but the fact gives us some sense of why she, as an adult, is so very disconnected from her own life. I recognize that, by stripping the principals of a life beyond the ring (Mostly. Eastwood’s character studies Gaelic, and attends mass, partially so that he can ask the priest annoying theological questions afterwards), and by devoting so little to the supporting cast, the film maintains a powerful focus and narrative thrust. Still, I wonder what the film might have been like if the other characters had been less simplified.

In the end, Million Dollar Baby ranks among the best boxing films, in a category with When We Were Kings and Requiem for a Heavyweight. If the scenes outside the ring lack the kind of jab-jab-punch pacing usually found in Hollywood films, the characterization and ending also move from the typical Tinsel Town treatment, and the film delivers a powerful emotional knockout.