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Million Dollar Baby

Release date: Dec. 15

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Oscar alumni: Clint Eastwood (director, producer, “Unforgiven”); Hilary Swank (actress, “Boys Don’t Cry”); Joel Cox (editor, “Unforgiven”); Henry Bumstead (production designer, “The Sting,” “To Kill a Mockingbird”); Albert S. Ruddy (producer, “The Godfather”)

Despite a high-concept, upbeat-sounding title, “Million Dollar Baby” is not a turn toward lighter fare for Clint Eastwood after last year’s murder drama “Mystic River,” at least according to early auds.

The “Million Dollar Baby” of the title is Oscar winner Hilary Swank, who plays an aspiring boxer. Among her trainers are ex-pugilists Eastwood and Morgan Freeman.

Despite the “Rocky”-like trappings of an athlete who struggles against all odds to succeed, the film might be categorized as more of a character drama along the lines of “Girlfight,” in that the central conflict is between woman and trainer, and their growing respect for one another.

Eastwood’s work with actors, including Sean Penn and Gene Hackman — who won Oscars for “Mystic River” and “Unforgiven,” respectively — has become a directorial calling card, as has his on-time, on-budget rep. That’s no mean feat in a Hollywood that is constantly fending off accusations of excess.

But, more important, critics and fans admire Eastwood’s no-frills style of filmmaking, with a lean and mean approach to story and character that eludes many of today’s tyro filmmakers schooled in commercials and musicvideos. The Oscar campaign for “Mystic” emphasized Eastwood’s comment that the film was an acting and storytelling showcase with no special effects.

Since “Boys Don’t Cry,” Swank has chosen eclectic fare, ranging from HBO’s “Iron Jawed Angels” to the bigscreen “Insomnia” with Al Pacino, proving that she can hold her own among the screen heavyweights. And Freeman, a three-time Oscar nominee who has worked with Eastwood in “Unforgiven,” has built a resume as a thoughtful, resourceful actor in the vein of Hackman.

Eastwood collaborates with his regular repertory, including veteran production designer Henry Bumstead; editor Joel Cox; and “Mystic River” d.p. Tom Stern, who has worked on more than a dozen Eastwood films in various capacities.

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