It doesn’t seem likely that filmmakers will ever grow tired of making boxing films, or that they’ll run out of inspiring athletes to make them about. What’s not to love about a boxing film, anyway? The stories are rife with colorful characters, outsize egos, braggadocious smack talk, personal perseverance, and lots and lots of blood. They write themselves, practically, and “Bleed for This,” the true story of Vinny Paz (Pazienza), slips easily into the already established oeuvre.
There are times when you almost might wonder if you’re watching another version of “The Fighter,” the David O. Russell film starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. The story of a hotheaded New England boxer with a wild family in the 1980s is certainly familiar, though Ciaran Hinds, playing Paz’s father Angelo, bellows, “We’re from Providence!” early on, which helps make the distinction clear. Toto, we’re not in Boston anymore.
The film, written and directed by Ben Younger, follows a fairly standard-issue boxing movie formula: the charismatic and cocky young fighter, the inevitable adversity, the rousing comeback, the down-on-his-luck trainer (a paunchy and bald Aaron Eckhart), the moms and sisters and parade of anonymous girlfriends cheering him on.
The unique thing about Vinny Paz’s story is just how extreme his adversity was – a head-on car wreck that left him with a broken neck and six months with a halo screwed into his skull. They said he might not walk again; he vowed to box again, and he did, through sheer will and poor risk management. Despite the halo screwed into his head, he’s got a bit of a screw loose.
Miles Teller takes to the role of the sweet, swaggering dirtbag Vinny with relish, and a scraggly pencil mustache to boot. It’s fun to watch him boast and strut as the Pazmanian Devil in his prime, but the real heart of the film is the middle, when Vinny is relegated to his cramped family home in Rhode Island, nearly immobile from the halo, unsure if he’ll ever fight again. A scene wherein he awkwardly achieves a single bench press alone in his basement has the most emotional impact of the entire film.
Younger and cinematographer Larkin Seiple take a hand-held, observational style with the camera, and when it sits back and watches the effort and determination of this feisty fighter, it works. Other times, the camera wanders and peeks on its own – over autumn leaves to a smoking automobile carcass, through a doorway where a phone endlessly rings. There’s a feeling that often it can’t keep up with the characters and scenes into which we are dropped, mid-rapid-fire conversation. Not everything lands with enough heft. The boxing matches are lightweight too – the camera takes a ringside viewpoint, cutting often, and the punches whoosh and squeak, rather than thud.
The kernel at the heart of the film is inspirational – Vinny’s dogged determination to do the simplest thing, which is the hardest thing: just to do it at all. That’s the real meat of the story, and it’s there, buried underneath acid wash denim and plastic aviators and undulating strippers. It’s just that what surrounds it is overly busy, cliche and rote: a story that we’ve seen before. You can’t shake the sense that the real Vinny Paz is far more fascinating than this basic boxing biopic.
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For its first 40 minutes or so, “Bleed for This,” the “based on a true story” boxing picture directed by Ben Younger and starring Miles Teller, follows the sports-movie-comeback-narrative playbook with extreme fidelity. It would be tiresome were it not for the casual energy of the filmmaking. Mr. Teller plays Vinny Pazienza, the Rhode Island-born-and-bred boxer who, as the film opens in 1988, seems a bit feckless. Staying up too late in Las Vegas the night before a big fight, he goes on to lose that match. His third in a row. His own manager announces in a televised interview that the fighter should hang up the towel.
Instead, the Pazmanian Devil, as Mr. Pazienza is known, begins working with a hard-drinking trainer, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), also washed up by conventional wisdom. The two defy expectations, handily taking a title belt two weight classes above which the boxer had previously fought. All’s well that ends well — except the movie is not even halfway over.
But then comes a car accident. The fighter’s neck is fractured, and he’s in danger of never walking again. Given that Mr. Pazienza went on to, among other things, fight and beat Roberto Durán twice after his recovery, the comeback narrative certainly gains in dimension here.
For all that, “Bleed for This,” which Mr. Younger wrote from a story credited to Pippa Bianco and Angelo Pizzo, plays with the factual record a bit. For one, the film makes it look as if his first fight with Mr. Durán was his first after recovering from his injury, which required him to wear a metal halo ring and neck brace for six months. (Among the delightful features of the halo are the four screws that go directly into the patient’s skull.) That time line is off, but the change certainly heightens the drama. (Earlier this year the far inferior boxing movie “Hands of Stone” told Mr. Durán’s story, but it did not include his encounters with Mr. Pazienza.)
Mr. Teller first plays his boxer as a hardheaded, generally likable mook — a bit of a bad boy, but over all an emblem of the integrity of the working-class athlete. After the accident, the portrayal deepens, and delivers substantial emotional dividends without yielding to facile sentimentality. As his trainer, Mr. Eckhart is similarly committed. Mr. Younger’s direction is focused and sometimes disarming — scenes that at first seem like slice-of-life digressions, such as a postaccident surprise birthday party for the protagonist, lead to unexpected mini-epiphanies.
Given the conventions of the genre, Mr. Younger’s affectionate depiction of close-knit Italian-American life in Rhode Island is not surprising, but his devotion to the conscientious portrayal of the fundamentals of the so-called sweet science is refreshing. This is a boxing movie that actually gets boxing.
In a sense, the movie’s title is the most unfortunate element of the enterprise: It is not only a little off-putting, but it’s also inaccurate, particularly in its masochistic implications. The movie makes it clear that Mr. Pazienza doesn’t box to suffer, he suffers to box: The story is about moving past the pain, even the excruciating pain the fiercely anti-drink-and-drugs boxer endures when he insists on having his halo brace removed without anesthesia.
With their scrupulous but unobtrusive attention to pertinent details, Mr. Younger, Mr. Teller and the rest of the cast make “Bleed for This” more than an inspiring version of Mr. Pazienza’s story; they make it a genuinely interesting one.
Creating a boxing movie that feels original and void of the genre’s numerous, already existing cliches is no easy task, and one that we’ve seen plenty of recent additions to the genre fail to do over the past few years. Unfortunately, Ben Younger’s Bleed For This doesn’t quite manage to elevate itself past any of those standard tropes either, though it does feature two lead performances that could emerge as possible contenders in this year’s packed awards race.
Starring Miles Teller as real life boxer Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza, Bleed For This follows Paz after he comes back from a losing streak to become a world champion in the sport for the second time. He’s then forced to face his most difficult struggle to date shortly afterwards though, this time outside of the ring itself when he’s involved in a brutal car crash that leaves his ability to ever box again in question.
To its credit, Bleed For This’ first act tells a story that usually would have taken up the entire plot of most other boxing movies, as Pazienza comes back from a shameful title loss in Vegas to Roger Mayweather. Asking for one more chance to keep his career going, Vinny is sent to New York to train with Aaron Eckhart’s Kevin Rooney, a legend in the boxing world that knew what it was like at one time to train champions, but whose life has since devolved into drunken nights and rough mornings. Rooney wisely and astutely tells Vinny fairly quickly on into their relationship that he needs to move up not one, but two weight classes in order to keep competing and thus, their training begins.
Younger creates a number of the film’s typical boxing montages with the expected, thumping musical tracks, but surprisingly, then undercuts them with unique sound design tweaks. There’s a number of times in the film, for instance, when the training sequences will just start gaining momentum, before either Younger or one of the film’s characters suddenly cuts the music off. There’s a sense whenever the filmmaker uses the technique that he’s trying to pull the viewer out of the mindset of a typical boxing movie and back into a more real world difficult story, but sometimes you can’t help but feel like Bleed For This could benefit from the vitality of an occasional, full-fledged boxing montage.
Predictably, even despite some possibly disastrous interference from Vinny’s father, played here by the consistently impressive Ciaran Hinds, Pazienza manages to come back with the help of Rooney to become a world champion once again. Just when things were looking up for the young boxer though, the film’s central car crash takes place and Bleed For This moves from a typical underdog boxing story to a comeback story set within a comeback story.
Younger takes his already quiet approach to filmmaking to the forefront of the film when Vinny undergoes his rehabilitation process, and against the advice of both his family members and doctor, opts against having a spinal fusion. Instead, he has a medical device called a Halo installed in his head, with the hopes that he’ll be able to start boxing again by the end of the required six months, which takes up the bulk of the film’s story and runtime.
Teller brings a quiet and confident intensity to his performance here as Pazienza, which is arguably his most impressive outing since his unexpected turn in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash back in 2014, that continues to prove he’s one of the more charismatic young actors of his generation, when given the opportunity to be anyway.
It’s clear that Teller has some hopes for Oscar gold with his performance as well, and he works to not only bring Paz’s personality to life onscreen, but also to make the boxer’s real life physical and emotional struggle feel authentic and earned. He manages to carry a majority of the film’s focus on his shoulders with applause-worthy ease and grace. It’s the film’s final moment however, filled with melancholy confidence and wisdom, that doesn’t make it difficult to say he’ll probably be in the Best Actor conversation next year.
Right alongside Teller, Aaron Eckhart emerges with one of his best and most transformative performances to date as Kevin Rooney, not only providing the audience with some of the film’s best comedic relief during its more dour periods, but also bringing a real complexity to Rooney’s relationship with Paz onscreen, especially when the film itself sometimes has to cut corners during the development of their relationship. In a film that puts a surprisingly low amount of attention on the actual boxing that’s going on, it’s the scenes between Vinny and Kevin that wind up packing the most punch.
While Younger’s writing and direction is consistently solid throughout the entirety of Bleed For This, the film’s never quite able to bring any tension or real stakes to much of Vinny’s struggle or to any of the film’s key boxing sequences. There’s a real sense that everything is simply going through the motions here, which not only makes one feel its almost two-hour runtime, but also prevents Bleed for This from being anything more than just another solid, if not especially noteworthy American boxing film.
Bleed For This features a pair of engaging turns from its two leads, that help to give it life where it desperately needs it, but the film itself is never quite able to feel as refreshing or courageous as Vinny Pazienza’s real life story.