Bleed for This, 2016.
Directed by Ben Younger.
Starring: Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Ciaran Hinds, Katey Sagal and Ted Levine.
Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller) has achieved enormous success as a lightweight boxer but his career is threatened when he fails in the Junior Welterweight title fight against Floyd Mayweather. When a devastating car accident causes a life-changing neck injury, the indomitable Vin works closely with his trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart) and flamboyant father Angelo (Ciaran Hinds), the incapacitated Vinny vows to get back in the ring.
Boxing movies are as inseparable from their feel-good cliches as Mona Lisa is from her enigmatic smile. Sometimes this is easy to embrace and champion (Rocky); other times it’s eye-rollingly tiresome (last year’s punchdrunk, lumbering Jake Gyllenhaal starrer Southpaw). Only occasionally does a master director implode it from within (Martin Scorsese with Raging Bull, less a conventional underdog tale than a character study that puts us in the ring with a defiantly confrontational and horribly fascinating central figure).
Ben Younger’s new pugilist offering Bleed for This hits the mat somewhere between these various stools, falling guilty to the predictably feel-good structure whilst finding grace notes of nuance and insight that elevate it above the norm. It helps that Boiler Room director Younger, making his first movie for 12 years, has the advantage of being based on a less well-known true life story (at least to those not versed in boxing lore), its dramatic twists subsequently packing a bit more surprise and punch.
As Pazienza himself Miles Teller is ideally cast, amping up the sense of cocky bravado seen in Whiplash and never courting easy sympathy in his portrayal. Even following Vin’s horrendous car accident and subsequent spinal injury (uncompromisingly staged by Younger), after which time he’s incarcerated in a hideous Hellraiser-style head brace, Teller’s performance brims with a sense of anger and arrogant defiance; it says a lot about the star’s inherent charisma that we remain on Vin’s side throughout, those inevitable underdog stirrings beginning to play on our heartstrings when he dedicates himself to bench pressing once again.
The not-entirely-sympathetic central character aside, the movie also deserves recognition for its unexpectedly intimate focus on Vinny’s close-knit Rhode Island brood (whose outrageousness Younger claims to have toned down for the movie), from his devout Catholic mother Louise (Katey Sagal) who can’t bear to watch his fights to his fiancé-berating sister. In fact for a large portion the boxing slips off the screen altogether, instead becoming a sensitive look at life-changing injury and the impact it has on domestic life. Particularly effective is Irish veteran Ciaran Hinds as Angelo who poignantly gear shifts from a portrayal of a brash, loud-mouthed, strong-arming father into a parent who can’t bear to watch his son get hurt again.
The final piece of the puzzle is arguably Aaron Eckhart’s finest screen performance in many years; quite apart from the attention-courting bald spot and weight gain, his depiction of trainer Kevin Rooney (also the man who trained Mike Tyson) is a consummately believable and sympathetic one, enjoying salty and bromantic chemistry with Teller that adds frequent laughs to the movie’s more emotional moments. Talking of which, they don’t come moreso than the stirring climax … but the you already knew that’s, right?
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★