It was Rocky Balboa who said, “It ain’t how hard you hit, it’s how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” Of course, Balboa also said, at the end of the first Rocky film, that he didn’t want a rematch with Apollo Creed. But they had one. They always do.
There’s always another fight, just as there’s always another boxing film.
Bleed for This is the rugged, uplifting biopic on the lesser-weight boxer Vinny Pazienza, a colourful character from the 1980s and ’90s, back when the sport had colourful characters. We meet Pazienza (played competently by Whiplash’s Miles Teller) furiously pumping away at a stationary bicycle while swaddled in Saran Wrap. He’s trying to sweat off a pound or two in order to make weight for a championship fight. (He should have tried jazz drumming – Teller perspired like crazy in Whiplash.)
Pazienza succeeds in dropping the required pounds, but, in doing so, weakens himself so much that he loses the fight and ends up severely dehydrated in the hospital. The decision is then made that Vinny would be better served by jumping up a couple of weight classes. It’s a risky move, but he’s a gambler – we see him playing long blackjack odds in the casino. And the gambit pays off when he wins a world light middleweight championship as an underdog in his hometown of Providence, R.I.
So, pretty standard boxing-genre stuff thus far from director Ben Younger, who made a name for himself with his 2000 debut Boiler Room, a bull-market take on underground brokerage firms.
Americans have a love for a certain kind of fight film: An ethnic blue-collar American fighting the odds against a more physically gifted (and often black) opponent, usually involving shady characters and a gritty, urban environment. To pick one’s self off the mat and persevere through guts, sheer will and the ability to take a shot – it’s a universal metaphor for life, but also a strongly held American ethos. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free … and your scrappy white boxers, please.
In last year’s awful Southpaw, Jake Gyllenhaal is a redemption-seeking, punch-taking fighter whose evil opponent is named Miguel Escobar. In the Bronx tale Raging Bull, the Italian-American Jake LaMotta takes the blows of Sugar Ray Robinson, the same sublime black fighter who smacked around the streetwise New Yorker Rocky Graziano, whose uphill story was told in the 1956 biopic Somebody Up There Likes Me. Graziano was born, by the way, as Thomas Rocco Barbella, a name which might – ding, ding – ring a bell.
Besides the great-white-hope Rocky franchise, we shouldn’t forget 2010’s The Fighter, the excellent film which Bleed for This most closely resembles. The Fighter starred Mark Wahlberg as the plucky, honourable Irish-American underdog from Lowell, Mass., who travelled to England to beat that colonizing country’s world champion.
In Bleed for This, Pazienza’s climatic fight takes place against Roberto Duran. Duran’s own story was told in this year’s Hands of Stone, a flop commercially. It seems nobody wished to see the boxing movie about a superstar who is Panamanian.
But back to Bleed for This. Remember in Whiplash, when Teller’s bloodied, dazed drummer walks away from a horrific car accident? Teller’s Pazienza gets into a bad wreck, too, but he doesn’t walk away from it – at all. In fact he breaks his neck, and, against his doctor’s best advice, chooses a risky halo-contraption treatment as opposed to a preferred procedure which, while safer, would prevent him from ever fighting again.
The rest of the happenings have to do with the boxer’s unlikely comeback. With his booze-hound trainer – a bald, paunchy Aaron Eckhart as Kevin Rooney, on a comeback trail of his own – Vinny secretly begins working out in the unfinished basement of his family’s modest home. He is humbled, even in bed, where his girlfriend complains that her [bleeping] hair is caught in his [bleeping] neck-stabilizing halo. Vinny’s gaggle of sisters, who cheeringly watch his fights on television, recall the likewise couch-sitting sisters of The Fighter. There’s bad hair right out of American Hustle. Earthy slice-of-life stuff.
It’s quite a cast Younger has put together: Ciaran Hinds is Vinny’s corner man and guilt-ridden father, Ted Levine is the fishy manager and former trainer Lou Duva and Katey Sagal is the fretful, prayer-candle-lighting mother. As for Teller, he neither distinguishes himself as a single-minded prize fighter nor does he let the film down.
The soundtrack is effective and overt – from the badass rock blare of Billy Squire, Bad Company and AC/DC to the atmosphere compositions of the indie musician Julia Holter to the riveting nu-blues of Willis Earl Beal. The camera work is slick, too; tricky sound-editing notions are pulled off with aplomb.
Some of the fight chronology is condensed, and we don’t hear a thing about the suspected steroid use that may have helped in upsizing the muscles of Pazienza, who, in real life, was a bit of a dink. But we don’t want to hear about that. Not in this make-America-“great”-again world.Report Typo/Error