Aging boxing cut man and manager Frankie Dunn is one of the best trainers in the business, but he keeps losing good fighters because he protects them too long from shots at the title. He owns the crumbling Hit Pit gym in L.A. and runs it with the help of his longtime friend and former boxer Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris, also in his 70s.
When Maggie, an eager female boxer in her 30s starts coming to the gym, the gruff Frankie refuses to help her: “I don’t train girlies.” But with her persistence and Eddie’s persuasion, Frankie gives in. At first, he intends to stop at training her, but the father/daughter connection that grows between him and the headstrong waitress from the hills of Missouri compels him to manage her as well, so he can protect her from the corrupt boxing system.
With Frank’s direction, Maggie becomes a dominant female boxer, usually knocking out her opponents in the first round. As she moves up the ranks of the WBA (Women’s Boxing Association), she and Frankie grow closer. But a freak accident during the million-dollar title shot in Las Vegas drastically changes both their lives and leaves Frank questioning his faith in God and the limits of his relationship with Maggie.
Frankie genuinely cares about his fighters and tries to protect them from both the boxing system and from getting physically hurt beyond what it necessary. Frankie is gruff, but he shows kindness and respect for his longtime friend Eddie, and he takes care of several of his boxers outside the ring. In addition, Eddie treats kindly and seeks to protect a deluded, slow, skinny boxer who comes to the gym to train every day.
Frankie writes to his estranged daughter every day in hopes of reconciling with her. He develops a protective, kind father/daughter bond with Maggie, who returns his kindness and loyalty.
Frankie is a faithful, if faith-challenged, Catholic. He prays that God will protect his estranged wife and daughter, and he is said to have attended mass almost every day for the last 23 years. However, he also enjoys frustrating his friend the priest with doubting questions about the trinity and other theological issues.
An aggressive fighter at the gym mocks Maggie, making fun of the size of her “t-tties.” She responds by using the same sexual terms against him. Another boxer acts out her insult by making sexual motions on the ring’s canvas.
Two or three “card girls” are briefly seen in revealing clothing as they parade the ring between rounds. Frankie tells Maggie to hit another female boxer “in the t-tties” until they “turn blue and fall off.”
Your view of the violence in Million Dollar Baby will have a lot to do with your opinion of boxing in general and female boxing, in particular. Those who see it as pure sport and “sweet science” might be less uncomfortable than the rest of us who have trouble getting past the fact that we’re seeing women being severely beaten, even as part of a voluntary contest.
The boxing violence includes close-ups of open cuts and freely bleeding noses. In at least a dozen bouts, multiple punches land hard, many knocking out female boxers, some breaking bones. As a cut man, Frankie’s job is to stop a boxer’s bleeding so he or she can continue boxing. At one point, he sets a female boxer’s broken nose, complete with crunching sounds.
While Eddie is distracted, an antagonistic boxer in the gym gets in the ring with a skinny and deluded boxing novice, beating him severely. Someone then challenges the bully, knocking him out with a bare-fisted blow that loosens a tooth.
One female boxer fights dirty, hitting others with elbows and in the kidneys. Worse, Frankie instructs Maggie to respond with illegal punches below the belt. Maggie bites her tongue, resulting in lots of blood.
Not surprisingly, the hard-bitten characters that occupy Frankie’s gym swear profusely, but the one clear use of the f-word comes from a Catholic priest. Frankie uses Jesus’ name for swearing at least five times, along with God’s name several more times. In addition, the s-word, “a‑‑,” “h‑‑‑,” “d‑‑n” and “b‑‑ch” are heard, as are crude references to male genitals and female breasts. Insulting racial epithets are used to identify blacks and Germans.
Drinking is mostly confined to the spectators at boxing matches and one meeting between Frankie and an opposing fighter and her manager.
Based on a book by boxing cut man F.X. Toole and helmed by star Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby is one of the best-crafted films of the year. Eastwood again excels at not letting moviemaking get in the way of storytelling. The result is a world that feels especially natural, full of harsh lights and dark shadows. Somehow, we smell the sweat-stained gym and feel the ache of muscles tired from training. The three leads are deftly convincing. Watching the aging Eastwood and Morgan Freeman work together is genuine pleasure, and Hilary Swank somehow makes her unglamorous boxer into a warrior without losing her femaleness.
But in spite of its artful delivery—or maybe because of it—Million Dollar Baby is also a deeply troubling film. Even if we can get past the images of women beating and getting beaten by each other, the film forces on us a much more dangerous message.
[Spoiler Warning: It’s impossible to discuss the important moral issues raised by the film’s ending without giving that ending away.]
Maggie’s final bout—her title shot—ends in tragedy. A sucker punch leaves her paralyzed from the neck down and instantly the film changes pace, tone and direction. We feel sucker punched, too. As in real life, we just don’t see this coming.
Frankie remains utterly committed to Maggie, calling doctors, finding a care facility, never leaving her side. But as time passes, Maggie’s depression tumbles into despair. Finally, she asks Frankie—who has become her father and she his daughter—to help her end her life: “I got what I needed. I got it all. Don’t let them take it all away from me. Don’t let me lie here until I can’t hear them cheering for me anymore.”
Frankie agonizes. He doesn’t want to lose her, but tells his priest friend that not doing this would feel like a sin. The priest rightly corrects him, telling Frankie this is God’s domain—that if he does this, he’ll be so lost he’ll never find himself again. So to be fair, the movie doesn’t specifically tell us whether Frankie’s choice to help Maggie end her life is right or wrong. To a point, it leaves that up to us.
The glaring problem, though, is that the story seems to sacrifice the integrity of its characters for the sake of the issue. Maggie has exhibited far too much courage and tenacity throughout the film for us to buy the fact that she’s giving up now. So the filmmakers try to recast her (assisted) suicide as an act of gutsy heroism, of defiantly seeking death out on her own terms rather than waiting around for it to find her. Begging Frankie to help her, Maggie recalls that her daddy always told her she “fought her way into this world” (she was born premature), and that she would “fight her way out of it.”
As for Frankie, who has spent most of his life protecting others, he also defies his own character by failing to shield Maggie from herself. (Unless, of course, you accept the notion that he’s protecting her from the continuation of her shattered life.)
It’s not that we don’t feel for Maggie. Who would want to be trapped inside his own body after such a full and physical life? I wouldn’t. And in real life, a man named Tom Young didn’t either. The Golden, Colo., firefighter became paralyzed from the neck down 14 years ago in the line of duty. He, too, was told he’d never breathe on his own. (He does.) He, too, battled depression and despair. Today, he puts in eight-hour days with the fire department and a local TV station. He also counsels newly paralyzed people from his breath-controlled motorized wheelchair. He tells them two things: There’s always something to do. And don’t stop fighting.
While I’m convinced that helping people end their lives is morally wrong and that such choices should be God’s alone, I’m also convinced that fighters such as Tom Young, Joni Eareckson Tada … and Maggie can be helped to battle their way through despair to find new purpose, direction and meaning. The ending of the brilliant Million Dollar Baby sells those fighters short.