YOU CAN almost smell the ringside sweat and old leather punching bags in "Million Dollar Baby."
Clint Eastwood's movie is not only a great tribute to the "sweet science" of boxing but also to the old-time movies and fiction devoted to it. Based on two short stories in "Rope Burns," by F.X. Toole (the pseudonym of former cut-man Jerry Boyd), it's a gut-stirring tall tale about a boxer (one buff Hilary Swank), her crusty trainer (Eastwood) and the wily old boxing gym proprietor (Morgan Freeman) who narrates the story.
They are archetypes, all three of them, and that's what makes "Million Dollar Baby" feel so wonderfully antiquated, so blissfully free of postmodern cleverness. This story, which Paul Haggis adapted from Toole's collection, could have taken place in the 1940s as much as the present day. Sign on for this movie and you are in a different world, where the rules are simple: Hit first and hit hard, or kiss the canvas. Sometimes you do all the right things and you still end up facedown in your own blood. But you get back up because there's something glorious about winning in that ring. As in the world of gambling, you will lose sooner or later. But you love the challenge. You love to believe.
That's the fantasy beating in the heart of Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank), a hardscrabble waitress in her early thirties who comes from the hills of South Dakota. She has left her welfare-cheating mother, nasty siblings and grim past for something hopeful. She's got that dream and the willpower. So she joins Frankie Dunn's gym hoping to persuade Frank (Eastwood) to be her trainer. No dice, he tells her. He doesn't train "girls." Watching all this, through his one good eye, is Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris (Freeman), the prizefighter-turned-house-manager who has seen it all.
There's a sign on Frank's wall. It says: "Winners are simply willing to do what losers won't." Maggie doesn't just believe it. As it turns out, she lives it.
Frank has just led a male boxer (Mike Colter) to the brink of a championship but has refused to put him in the ultimate prizefight until he's ready. Two more fights, he promises. But the boxer leaves Frank for another manager. Once again, Frank has lost out. He takes another look at Maggie, flapping with determination at the punching bag. He winces. She's not moving her feet right. She's holding her breath. She needs a trainer.
"If I take you . . . " Frank begins.
"I promise you I'll work so hard," exclaims Maggie.
"God, this is a mistake already," says Frank.
Well, of course he takes her on. And their growing affection for each other and teamwork becomes a powerful combination. They're going to need this togetherness when they face an unexpected challenge, which really road-tests the young fighter's heart.
As Maggie, Swank is a package of dynamite, a determined soul with too much to prove and too little time to do it in, to worry about defeat. Eastwood is so good in this movie, it almost feels like cheating. Of course he can play craggy, surly and ultimately charming. Shouldn't he play something else? But on the other hand, why mess with a winning combination. He slips on Frankie's persona like a favorite old suit. If his relationship with Swank's Maggie is the heartbreaker, his banter with Freeman's Eddie is the movie's greatest pleasure. The two of them go at each other, based on years of fine-tuning their running arguments. Eddie gives him grief about his bad choices in life. Frank returns the favor. And there is a comic routine between them concerning Eddie's hole-ridden socks that the writers of "Seinfeld" would have killed for. In "Million Dollar Baby," some of the best boxing occurs outside the ring.
MILLION DOLLAR BABY (PG-13, 137 minutes) -- Contains some brutal boxing violence, emotional intensity and obscenity. At Loews Georgetown.