It doesn’t seem likely that filmmakers will ever grow tired of making boxing films, or that they’ll run out of inspiring athletes to make them about.
What’s not to love about a boxing film, anyway? The stories are rife with colorful characters, outsize egos, braggadocious smack talk, personal perseverance and lots and lots of blood. They write themselves, practically, and Bleed for This, the true story of Vinny Paz (Pazienza), slips easily into the already established oeuvre.
There are times when you almost might wonder if you’re watching another version of The Fighter, the David O. Russell film starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. The story of a hotheaded New England boxer with a wild family in the 1980s is certainly familiar, though Ciaran Hinds, playing Paz’s father Angelo, bellows, “We’re from Providence!” early on, which helps make the distinction clear. Toto, we’re not in Boston anymore.
The film, written and directed by Ben Younger, follows a fairly standard-issue boxing movie formula: the charismatic and cocky young fighter, the inevitable adversity, the rousing comeback, the down-on-his-luck trainer (a paunchy and bald Aaron Eckhart), the moms and sisters and parade of anonymous girlfriends cheering him on.
The unique thing about Vinny Paz’s story is just how extreme his adversity was — a head-on car wreck that left him with a broken neck and six months with a halo screwed into his skull.
They said he might not walk again; he vowed to box again, and he did, through sheer will and poor risk management. Despite the halo screwed into his head, he’s got a bit of a screw loose.
Miles Teller takes to the role of the sweet, swaggering dirtbag Vinny with relish, and a scraggly pencil mustache to boot.
It’s fun to watch him boast and strut as the Pazmanian Devil in his prime, but the real heart of the film is the middle, when Vinny is relegated to his cramped family home in Rhode Island, nearly immobile from the halo, unsure if he’ll ever fight again. A scene wherein he awkwardly achieves a single bench press alone in his basement has the most emotional impact of the entire film.
Younger and cinematographer Larkin Seiple take a hand-held, observational style with the camera, and when it sits back and watches the effort and determination of this feisty fighter, it works. Other times, the camera wanders and peeks on its own — over autumn leaves to a smoking automobile carcass, through a doorway where a phone endlessly rings. There’s a feeling that often it can’t keep up with the characters and scenes into which we are dropped, mid-rapid-fire conversation.
Not everything lands with enough heft. The boxing matches are lightweight, too — the camera takes a ringside viewpoint, cutting often, and the punches whoosh and squeak, rather than thud.
The kernel at the heart of the film is inspirational — Vinny’s dogged determination to do the simplest thing, which is the hardest thing: just to do it at all. That’s the real meat of the story, and it’s there, buried underneath acid wash denim and plastic aviators and undulating strippers.
It’s just that what surrounds it is overly busy, cliché and rote: a story that we’ve seen before. You can’t shake the sense that the real Vinny Paz is far more fascinating than this basic boxing biopic.
Bleed for This
☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Ben Younger
Cast: Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Ciaran Hinds, Katey Sagal, Amanda Clayton
Rated: R (strong language, sexuality/nudity, some accident images)
Running time: 116 min.