Swank is a winner despite her movie

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Forget about those lips, those eyes: What tears you up about Hilary Swank from the start of Million Dollar Baby are those gums, those teeth. As an L.A. waitress from the Ozarks who strives to be a champion boxer, she opens up her face with the jaw-wide smiles and grimaces of a woman who wouldn't think of molding an emotional expression for effect.

With homegrown American material, Swank has proved herself a killer actor. She was devastating as the gender-confused "Brandon Teena" in her Oscar-winning performance in Boys Don't Cry, and she brings a similarly remarkable blend of toughness and neediness to her fledgling fighter in Million Dollar Baby.

Her director here, Clint Eastwood, also plays the old-fashioned manager who reluctantly takes her on as his first female fighter. He always loses his best boxers because he's over-protective and too hesitant to put them into flashy matchups and title fights. But he ends up doing his damnedest for Swank.

If only Eastwood the director were as much of a guardian angel. In Million Dollar Baby, he and his screenwriter, Paul Haggis, shove their star's poignancy down our throats, teeth and all. Eastwood sets a slogging pace that sometimes passes for courtliness. But not here. Basing his work on material from the short-story collection Rope Burns by F.X. Toole, he and Haggis pound home a plot turnaround so melodramatic and bathetic that it ruins the pleasure of Swank's company.

Even before that anti-audience climax, Million Dollar Baby plays like an anorexic Fat City - the sort of movie that salutes the total losers or near-misses of life for their stubborn ability to fantasize about glory and take a punch. At one point, we're told that boxing moves require fighters to pivot in a counter-intuitive fashion, but except for that ghastly twist there's nothing unpredictable about this movie.

Morgan Freeman plays Eastwood's only friend, who also serves as the caretaker for the Hit Pit, Eastwood's gym. Freeman, as always, is a warm, welcoming presence who uses his gut the way Swank does her armature. But he's saddled with a wall-to-wall narration as tiresomely pseudo-profound as Anthony Hopkins' in Alexander. Both the dialogue and the narration have the thrift-shop mustiness of lines like, "If there's a magic in fighting battles beyond endurance, it's the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you."

Freeman's character, who lost an eye in a fight when Eastwood was his ringside patch-up guy or "cut man," is the first pro boxing hand to see Swank as a potential juggernaut. Despite their corniness, Freeman's duets and two-steps with Swank as he starts to show her the ropes, and the scenes of Swank snagging Eastwood's interest with her intrepidity, are the best parts of the movie.

But from the beginning, there's all this other undigested, indigestible stuff: Eastwood's attempt to contact his estranged daughter of 23 years with letters that are always returned unopened (their estrangement goes unexplained); his punctual attendance at church combined with a habitual hectoring of his priest; his reading of William Butler Yeats, in Gaelic; and his emblazoning of the Gaelic phrase "Ma Cushla" on Swank's robe. Not to give away too much, but those who speak Gaelic will be clued in to the payoff. (And don't get me started on the mentally challenged would-be fighter that Freeman tries to father in the gym.)

In a boxing soap-opera way, Eastwood is trying to do for himself as a performer what Sergio Leone did for him in a spaghetti-western way: douse his rough-hewn banality with reflected emotional coloration. Thanks to Swank, for a patch or two, the strategy works. But then he brings on the brutality and bathos. If any director proves that sadomasochism is just the evil twin of sentimentality, it's Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby.

Million Dollar Baby

Starring Hilary Swank, Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13

Time 137 minutes

Sun Score **

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