Yet, even though, as Scrap says, boxing exists because those in the fight game know that people support the sport because of a love of violence, Frankie has retreated from confronting the savagery of the sport by playing it safe with the prize fighter he is managing. Big Willie Little (Mike Colter) wants his shot at the championship, but Frankie keeps telling him he is a couple of fights away from that goal. Scrap says that in boxing, sometimes you step backward to deliver a punch, “but step back too far and you ain’t fighting at all,” in boxing and in life. Frankie has been trying to play it safe in a sport that, by its nature, defies safety. Scrap knows Frankie understands the nature of boxing because Frankie has said that “boxing is an unnatural act, that everything in boxing is backwards.” Scrap illustrates this point by showing how a fighter must defy what his body knows is best for him: “The body knows what fighters don’t: how to protect itself.” When a guy is getting beaten up, the body says to him, “Hey, I’ll take it from here because you obviously don’t know what you are doing. Lie down, now, and rest, and we’ll talk about this when you regain your senses.” So, even though the fighter should stay down for his own good after getting knocked to the canvas, the true boxer will rise up to continue the battle. He will persevere, which Scrap says is the “magic” in boxing, because, battling, “beyond cracked ribs, ruptured kidneys, detached retinas,” there is a risking “of everything for a dream that nobody sees but you.” We have here a metaphor for how we must continue to fight as we focus on our dreams while enduring the batterings that life can deal us. Willie, although very grateful for what Frankie taught him, goes with another manager, and wins the championship. Scrap tells Frankie that the real reason that Willie left him was because Willie didn’t feel that Frankie believed enough in him. From a broader view, sometimes we need the support of others to help us triumph over the punches that life lands on us.
We see Frankie saying his prayers, so we know he is a believer. But, maybe because he is a fighter at heart, he battles the impatient priest, Father Horvak (Brian F. O’Byrne), over concepts in the Catholic religion such as the Immaculate Conception and the Holy Trinity. One scene which is funny occurs when Frankie sarcastically likens this latter concept to “Snack, Crackle, and Pop all rolled into one big box.” The weary and indignant priest responds by saying, “You’re standing outside my church, comparing God to Rice Krispies?” But despite the humor here, Frankie’s questioning springs from the conflict between believing in the ideals of his religion and reconciling those precepts with his real life negative experiences. He is estranged from his daughter, to whom he writes every week, only to have the mail returned unopened, like unanswered prayers. We later learn that in Scrap’s last fight, the manager was drunk and absent, and Frankie felt it was his responsibility, as the cut man, to stop the contest, even though he had no authority to do so. Scrap lost an eye due to the beating in the match. Despite their bickering with each other, Frankie has stayed close to Scrap, having him work in his gym (the “Hit Pit,” a name that doesn’t sound encouraging), and allowing him to live there. Father Horvak says that Frankie’s showing up every day for mass for twenty-three years indicates he “can’t forgive himself for something,” and Frankie’s guilt has made him fearful, which is counterproductive in a dangerous sport.
Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank, winning her second Best Actress Oscar here) shows up at the gym. Scrap’s voice-over tells us that she came from an impoverished, tiny town in the Ozarks of Missouri, “Somewhere between nowhere and goodbye.” Not exactly a place one wants to call home. Scrap says Maggie grew up knowing her whole life that “she was trash.” Given that perception it seems fitting that we watch her pick up other people’s garbage, leftovers from the meals she serves them, that she then wraps up for herself, telling the boss it’s for a dog she doesn’t have. But she gathers these food remnants because she has a plan to emerge from the trash. She is saving money by scrimping on buying food and collecting tips to pay her dues at the gym. She has relocated because she wants Frankie to manage her. Frankie’s first response is that he doesn’t want a girl in his gym, and tells Scrap to return her dues. But, she has paid six months in advance, and the gym is not doing well financially. Maggie’s drive to succeed is obvious as she stays after closing time to practice. Scrap, despite the setbacks in his life, wants to encourage the hopes of others. He allows “Danger” Barch (Jay Baruchel), a skinny, mentally challenged young man, who was abandoned by his mother’s boyfriend, to work out for free. His nickname is at odds with his appearance, but, like Maggie, he wants to rise above his disadvantages. Scrap allows Maggie to stay late at the gym and gives her some tips, as well as Frankie’s old speed bag for practice.
Frankie’s first response to Maggie is a sexist one. She tells Frankie she wants him to manage her. After she says she is tough, he says, “Girlie tough ain’t enough.” A sign on the gym wall says that winners are those who are willing to do what losers won’t. Maggie is that kind of winner. This film is about female empowerment, where women fight not only to beat opponents, but to gain respect as formidable individuals in an area which accepts male toughness as the basis to exert power. One male fighter, Shawrelle Berry (Anthony Mackie) is a bully, and he harasses both Danger and Maggie because they don’t fit the usual requirements for boxers. He makes fun of Maggie’s small breasts, but Maggie shows she can hold her own. She undermines his macho stance and reverses his put-down, pointing out his mammary obsession by telling him, “I saw your last fight, Shawrelle. Spent so much time face down I thought the canvas had titties.” Scrap tries to encourage Frankie to help out Maggie, saying she has something. Frankie’s funny reply is, “Yeah, she’s got my speed bag.” Frankie tells Maggie that she’s too old to try and become a prize fighter. She is thirty-one, and it takes five years to train properly, and then she will be going up against stronger and faster twenty-year-olds. Frankie discovers she has been working out after hours one night and she says that it’s her thirty-second birthday, and she is celebrating. She lets on about how she comes from a world of losers when she says, “I spent another year scraping dishes and waitressing which is what I have been doing since thirteen … my brother’s in prison, my sister cheats on welfare by pretending one of her babies is still alive, my daddy’s dead, and my momma weighs 312 lbs. If I was thinking straight, I’d go back home, find a used trailer, buy a deep fryer and some Oreos. Problem is, this is the only thing I felt good doing. If I’m too old for this, then I got nothing.” This speech presents how the hopelessness of Maggie’s world could lead to accepting the deaths of a young child and that of a parent as routine, and acknowledging that one is only worthy of getting a “used trailer,” and succumbing to an unhealthy lifestyle. Maggie is willing to fight against what seems like the inevitable. She tells Frankie that she doesn’t want pity, and is willing to work to earn her way. She says, “I want a trainer. I don’t want charity, and I don’t want favors.”
After losing Willie, and a chance at getting a title shot, Frankie decides to help Maggie, but only until she is ready to be managed by someone who handles female fighters. Maggie wants Frankie to believe in her, just as Willie did, but with Maggie and Frankie, it is more like a father-daughter relationship. Maggie lost her father at a young age and feels alienated from her family. Frankie no longer has any contact with his daughter. So these two are drawn together now in an attempt to fill the familial void. As Maggie improves in her training, she keeps asking Frankie if it’s time for her to have a fight. Frankie has already shown a fear of putting boxers in danger based on what happened to Scrap, and that anxiety is increased with his new boxer, Maggie. But he also fears getting too close to her and being hurt again, which is what happened with his real daughter. When he sees a manager at the gym who handles female fighters, Frankie abruptly dumps Maggie onto the other manager. He has continually told her to protect herself when in the ring, but he is now trying to protect himself emotionally, and, ironically, hurts Maggie by betraying her. She goes with the new guy who promises her a fight. Scrap and Frankie attend the match, but Frankie can see that the new manager has failed to prepare her for the fight. Scrap says he learned that Maggie was being set up to lose in order to build up the reputation of the other boxer. Frankie’s paternal instinct kicks in and he butts in, telling Maggie how to deal with her opponent. Maggie fires the new guy, saying it wasn’t a “good fit.” When the referee asks Frankie if Maggie is his fighter, he says yes, finally committing himself. Maggie knocks the other girl out. After the fight, Maggie repeats Frankie’s words about always protecting oneself, and asks if he was protecting her by dropping her. He said no, and when asked if he will leave her again, he says, “never.” Frankie is now all in.
Maggie is extremely successful, to her own detriment. No manager wants to embarrass his fighter by having her knocked out in the first round. So Frankie actually has to pay the men representing other fighters to set up matches with Maggie. In the voice-over, Scrap says that Frankie had to do want he feared - he moved Maggie up in class, exposing her to more dangerous fighters. In one fight her nose is broken, and she is bleeding profusely. This event echoes what happened to Scrap, and Frankie wants to throw in the towel. Maggie shows her determination, gets Frankie, the cut specialist, to stop the bleeding temporarily, but she must win quickly, or the blood will start to gush. She does, but they must go to the hospital afterwards. While waiting to be treated, Frankie is reading as he often does. He was previously seen reading Gaelic. Scrap asks him what he is reading now, and he says Yeats. Scrap’s funny line is, “Why don’t you talk a little Yeats to her. Show her what a treat that is.” But despite the humor, Scrap is concerned for Frankie after seeing Maggie hurt, and asks how he is doing. Frankie tries to avoid anything emotional by asking why is Scrap asking him, since Maggie is the one that is hurt. In the voice-over, Scrap’s statement about some wounds being too close to the bone fits metaphorically here. Frankie bleeds internally from the emotional wounds inflicted in his past.
Maggie has twelve straight knockouts and she is becoming well known and earning money. Frankie gets an offer to fight Billie “The Blue Bear” (Lucia Rijker), the welterweight champion, for the title. She is considered the dirtiest fighter in the ranks, and we see her grinding her glove in an opponent’s eye, and punching her when she is still on the mat. But she gets away with her infractions because the crowds love her. This fact points to how boxing cashes in by catering to the unevolved, brutal nature of humans, who support the beating of people to experience the vicarious adrenaline thrill of knocking someone else down to build themselves up. Scrap says at one point that boxing is about gaining respect for oneself by taking it away from another. It is a nasty way of gaining respect, but the boxers are putting their well-being on the line, while the spectators risk nothing. Again, in order to protect Maggie, he passes on the bout with Billie.
On the way back from the unhappy meeting with her family, Maggie sees a smiling girl with a dog at a gas station. She tells Frankie that they had a dog when she was young. The animal became sick and lost the function of its legs, dragging itself around. Her father, who was also sick (it seems all living things suffer in Maggie’s world) took the dog away one day and brought his shovel with him. When he returned, he came back alone (This story is a foreshadowing of what is to come). After the way her family just acted, Maggie says that now all she has is Frankie. He says, “Well, you’ve got me.” So the movie doesn’t get too sentimental, Frankie jokes by saying at least until they can find her a manager. Maggie has Frankie stop at a little restaurant where her father took her, and where she enjoyed some sanctuary amid the tough times of their everyday life. She remembers that Frankie wanted some good homemade lemon pie, and here he enjoys a slice that he can relish. He wonders if the place is for sale, and says he has some money now stashed away (another foreshadowing). Maggie loved her father, the one happy thing about her childhood, and that one gift was taken away from her at a young age. She here tries to recreate that feeling of happiness with her new surrogate dad.
In the title fight, Billie again fights dirty, grinding her glove into the eye and hitting Maggie after she is practically thrown to the ground. Maggie battles back and knocks Billie to the mat for a count of nine. However, after the round is over, Maggie turns her back on Billie as she goes to her corner. Billie slams her with a blindside punch which sends Maggie falling to the mat. Unfortunately, the corner stool was placed on the mat at the end of the round. We have a slow motion sequence that has Maggie falling and Frankie reaching for the stool, trying helplessly to do what he wanted for his boxer, to protect her. Maggie’s head strikes the wood, breaking her neck and leaving her a quadriplegic. She can only breathe with the help of a respirator.
Frankie has many doctors do consultations, but Maggie’s condition is considered permanent. Maggie is not bitter nor does she break down emotionally. She is of such a generous nature that she worries more about how hard Frankie is taking things, and blames herself for turning her back on Billie. Frankie at first lashes out at Scrap for pushing him to manage Maggie, because, he says, then she wouldn’t have been placed in jeopardy. Frankie feels so guilty about another person he cares about getting hurt that he must blame someone else to lessen his feelings of responsibility. Maggie shows no anger, and can even joke with Frankie about how she said she wanted to fly to Vegas and return by car, and that’s what happened, only she came back in an ambulance. Scrap and Frankie visit often, with Frankie spending most of his time at the rehabilitation facility, saying he would just be reading somewhere else anyway, so Maggie won’t think she is taking up his time. He keeps up hope, getting a college catalog, saying she can go back and take courses. She says he should retire and get a cabin somewhere. He wants her to come, and she says sure, she will bake him pies and he can read. To hear them pretend to plan for a future that will never happen is extremely sorrowful.
We now see the source of the voice-over. Scrap is writing a long letter to Frankie’s daughter, trying to tell her what kind of man her father is, hoping that maybe she will open and read a letter from him, if not from her father. Scrap writes that he does not know what happened to Frankie. He offers that maybe there was “nothing left in his heart. I just hope he found someplace where he could find a little peace … somewhere between nowhere and goodbye.” The last shot we see is of that restaurant close to where Maggie grew up, where she shared some good moments with her father, and where Frankie ate the lemon pie. We see a figure that could be Frankie through the curtains in the window. Perhaps he could still feel connected to Maggie in the one place where she found peace by sharing her love with the fathers in her life.
The next film is Throne of Blood.