It used to be common knowledge that football, baseball, basketball, and auto racing were the most popular sports in America. But someone seems to have told Hollywood that our favorite sport is boxing, that Hollywood should make more movies about boxing, and that we will never get tired of boxing movies, especially formulaic ones about real people.
The latest example, and the second half of a one-two punch that started with this summer’s Roberto Duran biopic Hands of Stone, is Bleed for This, about Providence, Rhode Island’s Vinny Pazienza. Fans of the Pazmanian Devil know the aspect of Pazienza’s biography that makes it worthy of the big-screen treatment, and perhaps they don’t mind sitting through 45 minutes of cookie-cutter boxing-movie clichés waiting for that moment to arrive. Non-fans, however, are stuck spending the first half of the movie wondering why they’re watching it and the second half slowly realizing that they’re still wondering.
As portrayed by Miles Teller, Pazienza is a good-natured, mildly reckless underdog from a stereotypically mouthy Italian-American family (you’d assume New Jersey, not Rhode Island). His dad (Ciarán Hinds) is his biggest supporter; his mom (Katey Sagal), unable to bear watching the bouts on TV, sits in a room full of Jesus figurines and prays. When we begin, in 1988, Pazienza has made a decent name for himself as a light welterweight fighter (135-140 pounds), but he’s having trouble making weight without dehydrating himself. On the advice of his newly commissioned trainer, full-time alcoholic Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), Paz moves up a couple of weight classes, wins a championship, and seems destined for stardom.
But then there’s a car crash. Now, funny thing about Miles Teller. Before he was famous, he was in a nearly fatal auto accident that left scars on his face and neck. Since then, he’s had a bad car wreck in at least four movies (Rabbit Hole, The Spectacular Now, and Whiplash being the other three). Either Teller has remarkable psychological strength that allows him to keep reenacting his near-death experience without being re-traumatized or his agent is a sadist.
Anyway, Paz has a fractured neck, and though he isn’t paralyzed, doctors say he might never walk again, let alone fight. I’ll give you till the count of ten to guess whether he does.
At its core, Bleed for This has what should be an inherently inspiring story. But Ben Younger’s screenplay and direction are anemic, gliding through the comeback process like it’s no big deal, just checking off the boxes. Though a few characters tell us how hard it is, Younger fails to show it, and Teller’s performance doesn’t convey the grueling struggles involved. (The acid-washed fashions of the day, on the other hand, are portrayed vividly.) Teller and Eckhart have an appealing rapport, and the boxing scenes are strong, but the enterprise as a whole falls flat. If Hollywood’s going to keep making movies about boxers, it’s worth noting that the best recent ones, Creed and Southpaw, featured fictional characters. Just saying.
Eric D. Snider is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance journalist and film critic. You should follow him on Twitter.