Keep Your Ball Out of His Yard
If you look up "old school" in the dictionary, you'll see two pictures.
The first? A drawing of a one-room schoolhouse, complete with quill pens
and a potbelly stove. The second? A photo of Frankie Dunn, the crusty,
haunted, thoroughly irascible owner of the Hit Pit gym.
At the beginning of the movie, it's not hard to picture Frankie as that mean old neighbor, who, if you ever tossed your football into his yard by accident, would keep it forever. He's prickly and guarded, and he keeps everybody in his life at arm's length. "Ring rust has formed on his personal relationships," explains the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan (source). In other words, Frankie's basically a social hermit, and with the exception of his estranged daughter, his exile is by choice.
The Gym That Guilt Built
Frankie hides from humanity because he's up to his ears in guilt. First, there's his right hand man and BFF, Scrap. Long before the Hit Pit, Scrap was a fighter, and Frankie was his cut man. Scrap took a nasty punch above his eye. Frankie insisted that Scrap throw in the towel, but Scrap wouldn't. The next day, Scrap lost his eye, and Frankie's been blaming himself for it ever since.
Frankie's eyeball guilt causes him to treat all of the fighters he manages with extreme caution. Take Big Willie, for example: Frankie's so risk-averse that he refuses to ever put his best fighter in a title bout. Unsurprisingly, at least to everybody but Frankie, Big Willie ultimately ditches him for another manager. Frankie's equally timid about taking Maggie on, and, even when he does, he's totally overprotective. When he finally moves her up a weight class, Scrap tells us directly that Frankie hates, hates, hates taking chances.
Frankie also harbors a ton of guilt over his relationship—or, really, the lack thereof—with his only daughter, Katy. We never learn what the heck happened between them, but whatever it was left Frankie going to mass everyday and writing boxes full of letters that get returned unopened. Those aren't exactly the actions of a guy with a clear conscience.
All You Need Are Bagpipes
When Frankie meets Maggie, everything changes. Things don't look promising at first:
MAGGIE: I did pretty good. Thought you might be interested in trainin' me.
FRANKIE: Don't train girls.
MAGGIE: Maybe you should. People see me fight say I'm pretty tough.
FRANKIE: Girlie, tough ain't enough.
But Maggie wears him down, and he gets a second chance at success in the boxing ring. Initially, he's hesitant to put Maggie in a title fight, but when he does, they're off and running. She knocks out opponent after opponent and quickly rises through the boxing ranks, both at home and abroad. Frankie helps her make all of her professional dreams come true.
Sure, he backslides into his old, self-blaming behavior when Maggie gets critically injured, but Scrap is quick to remind him of what he and Maggie accomplished together. "Maggie walked through that door with nothing but guts," Scrap says, "no chance in the world of being what she needed to be. A year and a half later, she's fighting for the championship of the world. You did that." He sure did. He even appeared to have fun doing it. "Underneath Frankie's crusty exterior lies the romantic heart of an unabashed showman," Ann Hornaday writes of the flashy silk robes, Gaelic nickname, and bagpipers that Frankie hooks up for Maggie (source). Look at you, Frankie 2.0! Maggie reinvigorates the old man's love of the game.
Second Time's the Charm
Through Maggie, Frankie also gets another shot at being a dad. He becomes a constant, reliable presence in Maggie's life: more father than father figure. We get our first suggestion of this when Frankie helps Maggie with her tape after her first fight. Propped up on the table in her oversized robe, she looks like a little kid fresh out of the bath. Later, when Maggie tells Frankie that he reminds her of her own dad, whom she lost many years ago, and tells him that she doesn't have anybody else, Frankie promises,
FRANKIE: Well, you've got me.
That's about as sentimental as he gets, but when he reminds Maggie to always protect herself, you get the idea that he's not just talking about the boxing ring; he's dispensing fatherly advice.
After Maggie's spine is irretrievably broken, Frankie never leaves her side. He protects her from her greedy family, advocates for her to her doctors and nurses, and assures her that everything's going to be okay even though he knows deep down that it isn't. That's what parents do.
MAGGIE: Only two people in this world I ever wanted to be proud of me. You are one. You proud of me, boss?
FRANKIE? You have to ask?
"No one has lured him out of his shell until Maggie comes along," observes Newsweek's David Ansen, "and it's obvious the love that grows between them is the love he couldn't give his daughter" (Source). Frankie atones for his sins with Katy through his relationship with Maggie. He loves her unconditionally.
Starting from Scratch
He also loves her unselfishly. When Maggie asks Frankie to help her end her life, it's a seemingly impossible request for a man of Frankie's faith. She wants to die; he just wants to keep her with him. He knows it's a sin to kill her according to his religion, but he also feels it's a sin to keep her alive against her will.
FRANKIE: Now all she wants to do is to die, and all I want is to keep her with me. And God forgive me, but it feels like I'm committing a sin by doing it. By keeping her alive, I'm killing her. How do you find your way out of that?
Father Horvak answers that if he helps Maggie die, he'll be lost
somewhere so deep that he'll never find himself again. Heavy stuff.
In the end, Frankie puts Maggie ahead of himself. All of himself. "Frankie does what he does in the full knowledge that it will cost him his soul," claims The Atlantic's Christopher Orr "and that afterwards he will never be able to rejoin moral society" (source). That's some serious self-sacrifice. Frankie loves Maggie so much that he lets her go, and then he lets go of his former self, leaving behind the boxing ring and the boxes of unopened letters to Katy, in order to find peace.
And some awesome homemade lemon pie.