Since his film debut as a traumatized teen in the critically heralded 2010 drama Rabbit Hole, Miles Teller has been working every angle to make it big in Hollywood. He went quirky sidekick in the Footloose reboot. He leaned hard on charm in the winsome indie The Spectacular Now and the bro-centric rom-com That Awkward Moment. He dived into wannabe blockbusters like the failed Divergent franchise and the critically reviled Fantastic Four. He went gritty for the Oscar-winning Whiplash, but didn’t earn any big nominations himself.
So perhaps a boxing biopic was inevitable. After all, look at history: Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby. Will Smith in Ali. Sylvester Stallone in Rocky and Creed. Boxing movies almost guarantee Academy Award attention. Almost. (Sorry, Southpaw.) Yet for all the heart and hulk Teller brings to the story of World Champion Boxer Vinny Pazienza, Bleed for This is no contender.
Pazienza’s story is one of victory through perseverance, pigheadedness, and dumb luck. Known as The Pazmanian Devil, this bold professional boxer was infamous for mouthing off and taking a beating but never backing down. This tenacity served him well while recovering from a car crash that very nearly snapped his spine. Doctors recommend a surgery that would fuse his spine, but categorically end Pazienza’s boxing career. So instead, he endured excruciating months with his head drilled to a halo that would hold his neck in place and allow the spine to heal on its own. And once it did, this Rhode Island tough guy planned to return to the ring. No matter what.
It’s the outline of a great story. But the execution from writer/director Ben Younger (Boiler Room, Prime) is paint-by-numbers at best. Bleed for This kicks off at a weigh-in, with Pazienza running late as he desperately works to sweat off the ounces that could get him booted from the fight. He’s flanked by his bombastic dad/manager (Ciarán Hinds doing his best Sopranos impersonation), and a busty brunette with a push-up bra and a gum-snapping habit—the eye-candy girlfriend interchangeable from others that’ll come and go through the course of the film. Pazienza is presented as cocky, crass, and reckless. And that’s about it. Younger takes audience empathy for granted, perhaps assuming that Teller’s affable arrogance is enough to engage us. But Teller’s smug smile isn’t enough to elevate this forgettable drama that trips through boxing tropes of defeat, down-and-out trainer, workout montage, and the inevitable rallying. It’s not bad. It’s just been done before, and before that, and before that. And better.
Teller lacks the dramatic weight to sell Pazienza’s tunnel-vision determination that willfully ignores the very real risk that one false move or brace bump could leave him permanently crippled. Worst yet, Younger wastes the talents of lauded character actors like Hinds and Sons of Anarchy‘s Katey Sagal by giving them one-note characters who respectively bellow and fret. But the most jarring and bizarre choice Younger makes is cutting repeatedly to archival footage of the actual Pazienza. Even with a scrawny mustache and all the muscles Teller pumped up for the role, the two look nothing alike, making every cut to real footage pitches audiences out of the film remind us of its inherent artifice.
Bleed for This will not be the drama that establishes Teller as a heavyweight in Hollywood. And that’s a real shame for its true champ, Aaron Eckhart. Nearly unrecognizable with a bald head and defeated shoulder stoop, Eckhart carves out a moving arc for his character Kevin Rooney, who feels responsible for Pazienza as his trainer, friend, and father-figure. His eyes, alight with pain and regret and occasionally flickering with hope, bring some much-needed texture to this otherwise mediocre sports movie. Stripped of his debonair and god looks, this ego-skewing actor digs in to give the kind of rich of poignant supporting performance that gets awards season attention. But since this is the only thing Bleed For This has in its corner, recognition for Eckhart will be a long shot.
2 out of 5 burritos.
Images: Open Road Films
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