Film Review: Bleed for This

With 'Whiplash' intensity, Miles Teller hammers out a granite-tough portrayal of boxer Vinny Pazienza, who refused to throw in the towel despite a broken neck.
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Athletes overcoming physical obstacles have a long and honored tradition of being celebrated in movies, and their comebacks are genuinely inspiring, but, let’s face it, few films have departed from the winning formula—make that the Oscar-winning formula—that Douglas Morrow laid down in 1949 with The Stratton Story, a sentimental salute to the Chicago White Sox pitcher who lost a leg in a hunting accident but made it back to the minor leagues on true grit and determination.

Granted, Bleed for This does up the ante considerably by taking on the could-only-be-true story of Vinny Pazienza, a stubbornly unsinkable boxer who held world champion belts in three different weight categories and flatly refused to let a “little” thing like a broken neck keep him out of the ring. And writer-director Ben Younger, himself in something of a comeback after 11 years off the screen, gives this biopic a hard-knuckled, brutalizing veneer one would expect from the maker of Boiler Room.

But there’s no avoiding the soft-spot plot holes or the fact that the story builds to One Big Cliché (i.e., otherwise, what are we doing here?) A triumphant payoff is mandatory. Wisely, as was the case with Monty Stratton, the movie doesn’t linger long (or at all) on Vinny Paz’s latter-day life after he tags in with a happy ending.

Solidly in the film’s corner is Miles Teller, macho swagger and all, giving a charismatic account of Pazienza, whose unshakable belief in himself caused him to ignore the odds, the orders of doctors and the protestations of family and friends to continue boxing after he emerged barely alive from a deadly head-on car collision.

Unable to fathom how a fractured neck can slow a guy down, he asks right after regaining consciousness,  “How much time? How much time till I can fight again?”

Even the father who pushed him into the fight game pulls back here, so Paz resumes training alone—secretly—eventually enlisting the hesitant help of trainer Kevin Rooney, an over-the-hill, gone-to-pot-and-booze coach freshly fired by Mike Tyson.

Teller is the film’s real engine and keeps everything on proper, if predictable, course—although it has to be said that Younger has given the part some warts-and-all character blemishes. Like: breaking the training he’s not supposed to be in with late-night blackjack games and relentless womanizing. The only halo he wears here is the metal brace that is literally and excruciatingly screwed into his skull (and is just as literally and excruciatingly removed after half a year of healing). Ouch, ouch!

Beyond Teller, the main acting event seems to be occurring in the supporting ranks: Aaron Eckhart vs. Ciarán Hinds, bullishly duking it out for your Oscar consideration.

Balding and bellied for the occasion, Eckhart couldn’t be further removed from his usual lean-and-mean persona, as Pazienza’s alcoholic trainer. (Fact is, you could spend the whole picture wondering, “Who is that guy?”) It’s a nuanced performance you never expected was in his wheelhouse. Equally fine is the Belfast-born Hinds, who at least is recognizable as the push-pull pop, playing it big like the Behemoth of Big Daddies. He’s especially good late in the film when his bluster turns to blubber.

The film’s best supporting actress—indeed, the only one of consequence in this picture (given the revolving door of girlfriends and floozies that occupy Pazienza’s leisure hours)—is Katey Sagal, playing the fighter’s hyper-religious mother. Her hallway is an icon-filled shrine where she retreats to rub her rosary while the rest of the clan gathers in front of the television to wince and grimace over the body blows.

With the director of Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese, executive-producing, you’d better believe there’s a ring of reality to the ring scenes. Even more dominant is the family life of the fighter, which was paramount to his convalescence. As working-class Catholics go, the Pazienzas of Rhode Island are on par with the Wards of Boston in David O. Russell’s The Fighter. That flick had a couple of Oscar winners on the sidelines, and this one—though no knockout—could have a pair of contenders, too.

The closing credits have footage of the brass and sass of the real “Pazmanian Devil.”

Click here for cast and crew information.