Ben Younger knows how to make a boxing movie.
And in Vinny Pazienza, a loud-mouth Rhode Islander known as ‘The Pazmanian Devil’, Younger has found an ideal subject. Who better to embody the boxing genre’s recurrent theme of ‘overcoming adversity with sheer determination’ than a fighter who returned to the ring – and won a title – a mere thirteen months after a potentially career, and spine, crippling car accident. It’s the stuff of a screenwriter’s dreams.
But in bringing his story to the screen, Younger fails to inject it with any stylistic ingenuity. He merely slots a round peg into a round hole; signalling Paz’s party-going lifestyle, his managerial issues, introducing a new washed-up trainer who immediately makes the change needed to kickstart Paz’s flailing career, the resulting triumph, the unexpected accident, the naysayers, the baby steps as Paz tries to make his comeback and finally the comeback itself. Etcetera, etcetera.
The tropes and emotional beats are hit with such a consistency, it’s as if Younger is using a punchbag himself. And therein lies the disappointment. Is Bleed For This entertaining cinema? Undoubtedly. Is it a good film? Not especially.
It’s hard to believe that 2014’s Whiplash was the last good Miles Teller film we’ve seen. He’s has 8 dubious credits to his name since then, and Bleed For This barely escapes being the 9th. Teller is far and away the best thing in this film; and given good material he can make a strong showcase for being one of the most charismatic actors of his generation. He brings an intensity, a bravado and a likeability to Vinny that certainly makes him easy to root for. And who’s to argue with the physical transformation? The reveal of his ripped and shredded body, adorned in merely a pair of leopard print panties early on in the film is testament to Teller’s commitment. He might as well be shouting ‘TAKE ME SERIOUSLY’.
If you can tear your eyes away, there’s some ‘worthy-of-mention’ performances happening elsewhere. Predominantly in Aaron Eckhart’s corner, where he plays the boozy, bellied coach Kevin Rooney, newly ditched by none other than Mike Tyson. With this and the recently released Sully, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a sturdier supporting actor than Eckhart. Meanwhile, Ciarán Hinds and Katey Sagal as Paz’s brash, flashy, Catholic parents somewhat overcook the accents and the era.
There are a couple of moments that eschew affectation and speak to the inventiveness of which Younger is capable. Certainly the shot of Pazienza’s head-on car collision is depicted in a novel and sickeningly real way, whilst the energetic camerawork and evocative production design serve up a believably gritty view of working-class America. And if you come away remembering one thing from the movie it should be Willis Earl Beal’s track ‘Too Dry To Cry’ which injects the narrative with the perfect dose of soul and swagger.
It’s interesting to discover that Pazienza returned to the ring thirteen months after the accident and beat future WBC World Jr. Middleweight Champion Luis Santana via a 10-round decision. However the film chooses to depict his comeback fight as against Robert Duran. Perhaps because in the former he won via unanimous decision, where in this fight Paz won on the line via decision – making for a greater tension-filled finale. And yet strangely, Younger bleeds his film dry of tension. From the get-go his film establishes a tone where you simply expect Paz to pull through and that completely decimates any nerve-shredding, nail-biting impulses we might have. The only time you’ll be on the edge of your seat is when Paz is getting his metal halo removed and chooses to have the screws extracted without general anesthesia.
Bleed For This tries to have its cake and eat it too. By inserting real archival footage of Paz in the ring, it’s trying to convince us of its authenticity – and certainly with Raging Bull’s Martin Scorsese wearing the hat of executive-producer, there’s a whiff of someone that knows how to shoot a fight. But with a good amount creative liability, Younger has created an alphabet soup biopic, bobbing and weaving where he sees fit, but without ever landing a punch.
The final scene rather serves as an explanation why. Younger’s film bows out not with the ‘we-all-saw-it-coming’ moment of blood-stained, hard-earned, sweat-drenched glory, but with a moment of pensive reflection. Pazienza is being interviewed, and is asked what was the biggest lie he was told. He replies: “It’s not that simple,” – alluding to the naysayers; his doctors, his family, the media, his coaching staff – that repeatedly told him full recovery was impossible. Paz continues. “Actually, it is that simple.”
And that seems to encapsulates the issue with Younger’s approach. It’s too cut and dry. Too damn obvious. Whilst the story itself is completely true and inspirational, Pazienza’s triumphant rehabilitation makes for a diluted and strangely cautious cinematic subject.