Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

Be warned: What starts out looking like a routine if well-acted boxing drama has a sucker punch in reserve. Adapted from F.X. Toole's 2000 collection Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner, Clint Eastwood's slow-building story of loss and deliverance is a fine, understated piece of storytelling that earns every emotional body blow it lands. Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) has spent his whole life around the ring, first as a cut man — the guy who stanches blood and closes wounds between rounds, keeping injured boxers in the game — then as a trainer, manager and owner of a run-down Los Angeles gym called The Hit Pit. Deeply estranged from his only daughter — his regular letters to her are returned with piercing consistency — Frankie's only real relationship is with former boxer Eddie "Scrap Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman), whose life has been reduced to a cot at the Pit and crankily affectionate banter with his boss. Frankie has just lost protégé Big Willie Little (Mike Colter) to a slicker manager when 31-year-old Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), who's spent her life running from the white-trash stigma of her Ozark upbringing, pays six months' worth of gym dues and starts badgering him to train her. Maggie's only ever had one idea about how to better her circumstances and hold on to the fragile sense of self-respect her mother (Margo Martindale) devoted herself to crushing. But she's stuck on the bottom rung of a punishing sport, rudderless and so grindingly poor she scavenges table scraps while waitressing. Frankie wants no part of Maggie: He doesn't train girls, she's too old to be starting out, he's too old to keep training fighters so they can be poached by hustlers, and he's just plain tired of failing. But she wears him down and he takes her farther that she could ever have dreamed, at which point their story takes a turn that could have been absurdly sentimental were it not handled with such solid, matter-of-fact craftsmanship and the occasional flash of grace. Even Scrap's voice-over, which at first feels like an unsubtle shortcut to Frankie's history and inner life, is eventually placed in a bracingly poignant light. The film isn't flawless: A subplot involving scrawny, mentally challenged Danger Barch (Jay Baruchel), whose delusions can only survive in the fragile sanctuary of The Hit Pit, is heavy-handed and unnecessary. But overall it's a minor misstep in a film that transforms formulaic elements into such authentically resonant drama.