At first, it is a fresh, assured, and evocative take on the classic boxing formula. A tired old trainer (Clint Eastwood as Frankie), abandoned by the prospect he hoped to take to the title bout, meets a scrappy but untrained would-be boxer. He initially refuses to train the kid, but is won over, at first by the persistence, then by the heart of the young fighter. There's another connection between them, too. Frankie has no family but a long-estranged daughter. The boxer's father is dead and the remaining family is all greedy, selfish, and lazy. The bond between them helps to ease both of their losses.
One reason the relationship becomes so important to Frankie is that the boxer is a young woman. Maggie (Hillary Swank) gives Frankie the chance to bring all that is best in him to a nurturing relationship with a young woman about the age of his daughter.
And Frankie gives Maggie the chance to be a champion.
The details of the boxing world and Frankie's relationships with Maggie and with his long-time friend Eddie (Morgan Freeman, who also narrates) are warm and richly observed. Frankie and Eddie have the bickering banter of a long-time married couple and pros Eastwood and Freeman riff off each other like jazz players who have been jamming for a lifetime. Eastwood is also marvelous with Swank, a performance that is fuller, fonder, and funnier than we have seen from him since the Any Which Way But Loose days. For the first half of the film, the narration, based on F.X. Toole's superb book and beautifully read by Freeman, is so vivid we can smell sweat and adrenalin. A kid with more heart than arm "punches the air like he expected it to punch back." Another fighter has...