Bleed for This, 2016.
Directed by Ben Younger.
Starring Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Ciaran Hinds and Katey Sagal.
At the peak of his career in the 80s, boxer Vinny ‘Paz’ Pazienza had won the lightweight world championship, followed by the junior middleweight title. But shortly afterwards, a near fatal car crash landed him in hospital with a broken neck. Told he might never walk again, let along get back into the ring, he refused to give up and returned to boxing just one year later. Based on a true story.
For anybody who saw Whiplash, it was obvious that Miles Teller could act. But his subsequent choice of roles seemed to confound that – the Divergent series, (dare we mention it?) Fantastic Four, even in the more recent War Dogs he was second fiddle to the mouthy Jonah Hill. So there was a very large question mark hanging over Bleed for This. Would this be a reminder that he genuinely can cut it?
The answer is yes, but it’s tempered by the fact that the film is certainly no Whiplash – and he doesn’t do it by himself. Because the film is dominated by a trio of performances: Teller, of course, Aaron Eckhart as his trainer and Ciaran Hinds as his father, all working together and, at times, against each other as well.
Vinny ‘Paz’ Pazienza’s (Teller) return to boxing after breaking his neck was one of the most remarkable comebacks in sporting history. A flashy, aggressive fighter – he’s frequently told he’s “an animal” in the ring – he took full advantage of the money and glamour that went his status as champion, but boxing was his first, last and only real love. Witness the posters on his bedroom wall and all the photographs around the family home. His father, Angelo (Ciaran Hinds) was a constant presence, pushing his son all the way and literally always in his corner. He was non-too-keen on Vinny’s choice of trainer Kevin Rooney (Eckhart) because he encouraged the champ to move up two divisions in weight. The fact that he’d coached no less than Mike Tyson was neither here nor there.
And it’s the three of them that drive the film forward, Teller especially with that familiar intensity, pugnacious and indefatigable, undergoing excruciating treatment – the scene where the metal halo keeping his neck rigid during recovery is unscrewed from his skull is particularly wince making – but refusing point blank to give up. As a performance, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Whiplash, but it gets close. Hind’s Angelo, all gold necklaces, big sunglasses and loud shirts, has a hint of a Robert de Niro gangster about him, although he’s substantially paunched up for the role. And it works. As does Aaron Eckhart’s Rooney, a little too fond of the bottle but absolutely bang on target when it comes to knowing exactly what makes Vinny tick – and what makes him win.
But despite three powerhouse pieces of acting, the film as a whole fails to pack the required punch. The fight scenes, even though they involve real boxers and Teller himself, are surprisingly flat and it’s the crowds that provide the excitement, especially in that all-important comeback fight. The rest of the characters merge into an indistinct mass in the background, with only Katey Sagal as Vinny’s mum having much to do, hiding among her religious artefacts while the rest of the family watches his fights on TV. She simply can’t bear to look.
Triumph over adversity is a perennial in boxing movies, whatever the adversity may be. Perhaps the problem with Bleed for This is that it’s nigh-on impossible for the film to live up to such an extraordinary story. It avoids being on the ropes, but that knock-out blow is never there.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★