Movie Review: Bleed For This

With WONDER WOMAN dominating the cinema box office for the next few weeks at least, Hong Kong distributors are reluctant to release anything remotely big for fear that the film will sink into oblivion and they won’t recoup their investment. That’s why we’re going to be seeing some lesser known titles until the Next Big Blockbuster comes along. (That might be SPIDERMAN: HOMECOMING, which is due out here on July 6th.)

One of those films you may not have heard of is BLEED FOR THIS, starring Miles Teller (WAR DOGS; WHIPLASH; THE SPECTACULAR NOW). When the film premiered last September at the Telluride Film Festival, and then screened ten days later at the Toronto International Film Festival, the media was all abuzz with speculation that Teller would cop an Oscar® nomination for his role in the film. Yet, just weeks later when the nominations were announced, Teller’s name was yesterday’s news. What happened? For one, the studios released their Oscar-bait films like MOONLIGHT, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA and LA LA LAND, and they threw megabucks behind them to support their marketing campaigns. The other reason is that while Teller does a respectable job here, BLEED FOR THIS is nowhere near as engaging as such memorable boxing films as RAGING BULL, ROCKY or MILLION DOLLAR BABY.

Like RAGING BULL, BLEED FOR THIS is based on a true story. This time around, the subject is boxer Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza. A scrapper from Providence, Rhode Island, Pazienza, who has since changed his surname to “Paz”, became the IBF World Lightweight Champion in 1987 at the young age of 24. Lightweights must fight at 130 – 135 lbs. (59 – 61.2 kgs.), a weight that Pazienza had trouble maintaining given his 5’7-1/2″ frame. After collapsing in his dressing room following a fight and ending up in the hospital suffering from ketosis, Pazienza decided to move up to the heavier Light Middleweight class (147 – 154 lbs.). It was at this weight class that he won his second world title – the WBA Little Middleweight Champion. With that belt, Pazienza became only the second boxer in history to win both world championships.

Fate, though, threw Pazienza a sucker punch soon after when he was involved in a near-fatal car crash that broke his neck. Although the doctors told him that his boxing career was over, Pazienza wouldn’t hear of it. Opting to wear a halo device screwed into his skull rather than having disc-fusing surgery, Pazienza never gave up and, barely a year after the accident, he returned to the ring in what is considered to be the greatest comeback in boxing history.

While Pazienza’s story sounds like it should be perfect for a Rocky-esque, underdog movie treatment, writer/producer/director Ben Younger (PRIME) can’t quite land the knockout punch on it. The story follows a very predictable three-act arc that fails to put the audience solidly in Pazienza’s corner. Watching the film, Pazienza comes across as not the most likeable character as, at least in the first act, he seems more interested in going to strip bars and gambling than he does in boxing or even training. Yes, he does turn on the bravado when he needs to but, more often than not, he’s a bit of a hotdog. There’s a short film about the real Pazienza that’s on YouTube. There, we can see that he’s a hard worker who’s both serious about his sport and is often-times humble. Unfortunately, the scenes in the film of Pazienza training are superficial at best. When audiences go to see a film about a boxer, they want to see lots of sweat and maybe a bit of blood. They want glasses of raw eggs being drunk, miles being run and hills being climbed. That just didn’t happen here.

On the plus side, Aaron Eckhart (SULLY) is very good — and almost unrecognizable — as Pazienza’s trainer, Kevin Rooney, though his character needed more fleshing out. How Pazienza and Rooney got together is briefly touched upon at the outset. I won’t mention the circumstances here but it would seem to me that Rooney should have as much to prove as Pazienza. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t come across. In the film, Pazienza is pushing Rooney more than the other way around. Given their situations, I would think that they would be pushing each other equally hard in reality.

Other actors in the film fare less well. Ciarán Hinds (SILENCE) plays Vinny’s father, Angelo, a working class guy who supports his son’s efforts until the cost to do so, as he sees it, becomes too high. Again, watching the short film about the boxer, we can see that his father is more outspoken and has more personality than his character in the film. Also disappointing Katey Sagal (TV’s MARRIED WITH CHILDREN), who plays Vinny’s mother, Louise. All we see of her is her praying to Mother Mary every time her son steps into the boxing ring. It’s not a big acting stretch. None of the women in the film come across very well, for that matter. They’re either strippers, bimbo girlfriends or stereotypically loud-mouthed Italian family members and friends. The Pazienzas and their friends seem like the Sopranos but without the guns.

BLEED FOR THIS is not a bad film though. With a better script and perhaps a more experienced director however, it could have been an Oscar® contender.

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