Directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, Jay Baruchel and Brian F O'Byrne.

After a series of films ('Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil', 'Space Cowboys', 'True Crime', 'Bloodwork') which made him look like a champ who had run out moves, Clint Eastwood made 'Mystic River', a film which restored fans' faith and brought Oscars to leading men Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. That return to form continues with 'Million Dollar Baby', an even better film that harks back to the glory days of 1970s cinema with some of the best performances you'll see this year.

Eastwood is Frankie Dunn, a boxing trainer and manager who runs his gym with the help of old friend Scrap (Freeman) in downtown LA. Frankie's never had a huge pay day because he's not in it for the money and overprotects his fighters, with the result that they leave him for another manager who'll get them a shot at a belt - whether they're ready or not. And then Maggie
Fitzgerald (Swank) walks through Frankie's door.

A 31-year-old who left her white trash family back in Missouri for years waitressing and a dream, Maggie wants Frankie to train her. He refuses, none too politely, saying that he doesn't "train girls". But with Maggie having paid six months subscription to the gym he has to watch her train (badly) every day. Scrap, however, sees something in the new arrival and through his persistence, Maggie's stubborn streak and a chance at redemption, Frankie changes his mind. Now the man whose mantra is "always protect yourself" is about to discover how vulnerable he really is.

Based on author FX Toole's series of stories 'Rope Burns', 'Million Dollar Baby' ranks among the finest of Eastwood's career as a director and is up there with the other great boxing movies like 'Fat City', 'Rocky' and 'Raging Bull'. It's a film about survivors, not winners and behind the lens Eastwood gets the tone just right: profoundly tender but not pulling any punches in his depiction of people who've fought all their biggest battles outside the ring and won't stay down. You'll bond with these characters from the minute you see them.

In front of the camera Eastwood is perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the superb chemistry between himself and his co-stars. Never looking more worn out, regret riddled or cranky, he plays the role of Frankie Dunn so well that you forget about past icons and just see an old man who moves from shielding himself to opening his heart again. Beside him, Swank's performance as Maggie, all eager energy and wide-eyed self-belief, convinces from the start while Freeman's turn as gentle friend and narrator will resonate deeply with fans of his work in 'The Shawshank Redemption' and 'Se7en'. Even though this is a film that moves slowly, you end up wishing all three actors had more scenes together.

You may see the ending coming or you may get sucker punched, and you may think it's too depressing or just a little too big for what went before. However you feel, you'll also know that this film deserves to be more than just a contender.

Harry Guerin