We take a look at the Miles Teller led boxing drama Bleed For This…
The boxing world, the late-80s: Vincenzo “Vinny Paz” Pazienza is fighting as a junior welterweight. He’s naturally more suited to the welterweight class, but it’s standard for boxers to engage in weight cutting; why fight as the smallest in your natural division when, for the low cost of being unhealthily underweight, you can be the largest in the division below? Bleed For This opens on Miles Teller as Vinny Paz, desperately sweating out some last-minute weight before arriving, late, to a weigh-in against Roger Mayweather. He makes the cut. Barely. After the bout itself he collapses due to dehydration, is rushed to hospital, and sees his trainer Lou Duva (Ted Levine) advocate his retirement to live reporters. But Paz is a born fighter and, in the spirit of Rocky Balboa, fights his way back up from basics: disgraced alcoholic trainer Kevin Rooney (an unnaturally uglified Aaron Eckhart) tells him to ditch his “Palm Beach, orange juice and titjobs” lifestyle, train hard in a tiny, run-down gym, and also move up two weight classes to fight as a junior middleweight. Unheard of! But it’s crazy enough to work, and does, until the misfortune-prone Paz gets into a car wreck. His doctor tells him to forget fighting again; he may not ever walk again. But as I said, Paz is a born fighter. After three months wearing a “halo”, a type of metal scaffold designed to prevent any neck movement whatsoever, and rightly described by his doctor as “Mediæval”, he’s back and ready to fight. The only problem now is that no-one is willing to fight him; they don’t want to go down in history as the fighter who killed Vinny Paz, but nor of course are they willing to go easy in a professional bout. Eventually, an opponent is found, and Paz stages what is still considered to be the greatest comeback in boxing history.
It’s a classic sporting triumph, and one that it’s surprising hadn’t made it to the big screen until now, after straightforward or thinly-disguised biopics of such figures as Gentleman Jim, Primo Carnera, Rocky Graziano, Rocky Marciano, Jake LaMotta, Hurricane Carter, Muhammad Ali, and Micky Ward, some but not all of whom have life stories that are necessarily as remarkable as Pazienza’s. So the approach taken here is, as you might expect, more-or-less business-as-usual as the inspirational sporting drama goes. It’s a genre that might just achieve victory over the rom-com for the title of “Most Generic”. It’ll be a long time before anything as challenging as Raging Bull appears again. But the familiarity of the ingredients doesn’t mean that the dish can’t be put together well, just like…oh, let’s say macaroni cheese. That’s a dish that’s around about as cheesy as your average sports drama, and Bleed For This is no exception, although there is a knowing approach to the 80s tackiness herein depicted that is reminiscent of something like American Hustle or The Wolf of Wall Street – seeing Martin Scorsese’s name listed under “Executive Producer” comes as no surprise – and the hip-hop and rock of the soundtrack suggests one of the newer, hipper Rocky movies. It’s not all gloss though, as the picture in its best moments is capable of being clenchingly nasty. There’s a story that Steven Spielberg used to sneak into screenings of Jaws, wait to hear the audience scream when the corpse bobs out of the boat, and then leave, satisfied. Well, writer/director Ben Younger might get similar pleasure from listening for the sharp intake of breath when Pazienza has his head-screws removed sans anaesthetic.
Of course, such a tale of grit and determination couldn’t work without gritty, determined performances, but it has those in spades. Anyone with a penchant for seeing Miles Teller suffer is, of course, spoilt for choice, and his performance here is in no danger of eclipsing Whiplash; however, it is confident, engrossing, and also involves a teeny moustache. Aaron Eckhart, with his all-American good looks, is given a paunch and a bald head to play Rooney. The scent of the character must be an interesting one; partially he stinks of failure and partly he smells like victory. Eckhart has more than enough natural talent to make a part like this his own, but is often wasted on much shallower parts, playing a rushed realisation of the Harvey Dent/Two-Face character in The Dark Knight and a bland, square-jawed President in Olympus Has Fallen. The Eckhart/Teller chemistry accounts for a good 70% of what makes the film work, as they trade insults and, later, veiled compliments with a believably sweaty working-class machismo that is far more convincing than the homoerotic charge of something like Rocky III. Neither would ever admit to it, but the two characters come to really need each other, as Rooney trains Paz illicitly in Paz’s mother’s basement, against the orders of his doctor and the good sense of anyone and everyone. The crux of the picture, thematically, is that Paz simply cannot survive without boxing, much the same as Teller’s character in Whiplash couldn’t survive without jazz drumming. It’s an obvious theme, and to the picture’s credit it never indulges itself with one of those bad speeches where a character bluntly states what we’ve all worked out. Insisting that he’ll fight again despite his disability, all he says is “Doc, you don’t know what kind of guy I am”, a marvellously understated line also spoken by his real-life counterpart. It’s all we need.
Elsewhere, the reliable Ciarán Hinds remains reliable as Paz’s father; Katey “voice of Leela” Sagal shines in her few scenes as Paz’s devoutly, stereotypically Catholic mother, and Ted Levine is like a budget DeNiro as trainer Duva. It’s the sort of solid cast you’d expect from a film that is determinedly solid and, despite a predictable structure, and occasional long stretches that suggest a minor overhaul wouldn’t have hurt, it is, by and large, a triumph.
Bleed For This opens in UK cinemas today, will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!