Girlfighter: Eastwood earns respect, not love

Is Clint Eastwood touched by an angel in Million Dollar Baby? That's one explanation for one of the film's unanswered questions: Why does Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) decide Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is the only person who can train her to be a boxer?

There's another unexplained mystery: What happened between Frankie and his daughter that causes her to return his weekly letters unopened?

The second question doesn't require an answer. The aging dude in need of redemption is a stock movie character, and what he did to get that way is never as important as what he will do to redeem himself in the next two hours.

The first question is more problematic because Maggie's determination sets the story in motion. At 31 she's too old to start training for a boxing career, but she's come this far from the Ozarks and she's made up her mind that boxing will take her the rest of the way. The Hit Pit is probably the only gym she can afford on her earnings as a waitress, especially when she sends money home to her deadbeat family in Missouri.

Frankie bought the Hit Pit 17 years ago and keeps it afloat with occasional earnings from training and managing boxers. One of those boxers, Scrap (Morgan Freeman), now missing an eye, works for Frankie and is the closest thing he has to a friend.

Maggie asks Frankie to train her. "I don't train girls," he says. She begs him to train her. He doesn't budge. She keeps working out at the Hit Pit, getting secret coaching from Scrap, until Frankie finally gives in.

After winning a dozen fights by knockouts, usually in the first round, Maggie starts getting offered championship bouts and Frankie turns them down. The other fighters he's managed have left him because he never thought they were "ready" to take on the champ.

"The first rule," Frankie preaches, "is 'Always protect yourself.'" He's overprotective of his fighters and of his own emotions.

Just when you think you've got Million Dollar Baby figured out, it turns into something else– not another Rocky or Rockette– and grows progressively darker from there.

Under Eastwood's direction, the three stars give excellent performances, but the men seem totally natural– they work together like the legs on a pair of pants– while Swank is obviously acting. The styles don't mesh well.

Adapted by Paul Haggis from short stories by F.X. Toole, the screenplay is too heavy on narration, especially in the early scenes. Freeman reads it well, but there's too much of it. An attempt to expand the story beyond the three central characters is more successful with Maggie's family than the gym regulars. Jay Baruchel's overdone turn as a developmentally challenged Texan is more annoying than sympathetic.

Although it's a lot better than my nitpicking makes it sound, Million Dollar Baby is not a movie to see when you're depressed. The quietest film in years, it's also not a good one to see in a multiplex unless you're sure their soundproofing is off the chain. At a press screening the picture across the hall was louder than the one we were watching.

Under the right viewing conditions, quiet is not a bad thing. Million Dollar Baby has an effective– but soft– score by Eastwood, much of which is played on solo piano or solo guitar.

"Boxing is about respect," Frankie says, "getting' it for yourself and takin' it away from the other fellow." I'm not taking anything away from Eastwood when I say Million Dollar Baby has my respect but not my love.