By Will Ashton (Three Beers) –
Boxing movies come like one-two punches. Last year, for instance, saw Southpaw and Creed. This year, we had Hands of Stone in August and now we’ve got Bleed For This, based on the rough-and-tumble life of World Champion Boxer Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza. If Creed was a champion, Southpaw was a failed contender, and Hands of Stone was a plodder, then Bleed For This is something of a stylist. Neither masterful nor feeble, there’s not a lot of power in its swing, but it knows how to stay in the ring. Mindfully grounded, respectfully handled, yet never quite as compelling or emotionally gripping as it wants to be, it can take a few to the chin, but it would’ve been nice to see a few more counterpunches thrown. As it stands, however, this upstart doesn’t back down from a challenge, but its knees often tend to wobble.
Played with swagger and dick-swinging confidence by Miles Teller, Bleed For This portrays Vinny Pazineza as a tenacious, never-say-die personality, consumed with a rabid need to gain success as soon as it comes his way. Shown as both vulnerable and brash, an athlete who’ll peddle and peddle on the treadmill down to the last wire to come in under 140 pounds for the lightweight competition, only to show up to the weighing in nothing but a leopard-print thong to taunt his opponent, the film does a commendable job introducing us to the inherent complexity of our real-life character. He doesn’t drink. He’ll never touch drugs. Yet, gambling is an addiction he can’t shun, even the night before his next fight. He’s smug, demanding, incessant, allergic to giving up. Those are both his biggest strengths and greatest weaknesses.
He’s down for the count, losing fight after fight. He’s eventually denounced, disgraced, and humiliated by his trainer on HBO. But Vinny doesn’t quit. Rather, he seeks new management in Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), a weathered trainer with an expanding belly and subtracting hairline guiding him deeper into middle-age. He’s reluctant, as they usually are in these movies, but eventually he takes Pazineza on, suggests he goes into the middle-weight field, which he agrees to, and soon trains night after day before the big showdown. The day comes soon enough. The odds are often against him. Even his bookies have little faith in his success. Yet, The Pazmanian Devil strikes with a vengeance, sweeping the world championship in a beautiful demonstration of resistance, commitment, and sheer will-power.
That’s enough story to carry one boxing movie, but that’s only the beginning here. Instead, Vinny’s greeted with tragedy when a near-fatal car accident puts him in intensive care, with a halo attached to his head (not the good kind) and his neck damaged potentially beyond repair. Pazineza immediately wants to know when he’ll fight again, but the doctor isn’t even sure he’ll walk again, let alone hold the ring. All hope appears lost. The Pazmanian Devil is living a hell he never imagined for himself. But there’s still a burning desire fueled inside. Everyone says his future in the ring is finished, but like a true underdog, he believes otherwise. Going against the wishes of his family, doctors, trainers, and friends, Vinny works hard to bring his magic back to the sport. Despite some initial resistance, Kevin, once again, finds himself right beside him, encouraging every progression, extra lift, and bulging muscle that comes along the way. Daddy (Ciaran Hinds) doesn’t necessarily approve, but his son has his dreams locked in sight. He won’t stop until they’re realized, unless he dies in the process. Those sweat and tears need sufficient blood, though.
Bleed For This is, if nothing else, a fine showcase for Teller’s developing young talents, both physically and emotionally. It lets the Whiplash star bulk up, flex those extended biceps as often as his acting chops, all while working mighty hard for that Oscar glory. It probably won’t be found here. This isn’t Raging Bull, despite its best intentions. Beyond his questionable New Jur-zee accent, however, Teller commits wholeheartedly to the true-to-life character, often mining the sympathy in his typically brutish persona without making it feel entirely like a performance, despite his put-upon accent, muscles, the works. Perhaps even more astounding is Eckhart, in a role some might call unrecognizable, while others call a transformation. It’s not necessarily either, but it’s still an impressive, occasionally touching supporting turn that plays well with writer/director Ben Younger (Boiler Room) and his more grounded approach.
While it never completely avoids the familiar tropes of these kind of rise-and-fall sports stories, Younger works overtime to make his third film feel as authentic and reserved as he can make it. Even the inciting car crash sequence, which is becoming a tired staple of both indie and mid-budget productions, is done in such a way that it often echoes one of the most striking, memorable shots in Taxi Driver, and I doubt that was unintentional. It lets moments like these ones breathe, which adds more poignancy and depth, and it makes the gravity of the situation feel more urgent and impactful. It’s not always successful, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction —one more young filmmakers should notice.
If only Bleed For This weren’t so at odds with its own self. In spite of these tender, occasionally lovely and well-observed sequences of quiet contemplation and mournful sorrow, Younger’s newest film also wants to be the rousing, crowd-pleasing underdog sports spectacle that hangs the audience to the edge of their seat. It wants to be both Million Dollar Baby and Rocky IV simultaneously, and it doesn’t pull off that tricky balance quite as deftly as Creed did this time last year. Perhaps Younger wanted to make one movie and the producers/financiers/studio heads had another in mind? Maybe. It’s fast and well-edited, so it doesn’t become bothersome, but Bleed For This is clearly not living up to its full potential. That’s often because it’s simply too cluttered for its own good. There are a lot of things happening throughout the plot. Besides the moments mentioned above, there’s little time to really appreciate the extent of Pazineza’s incredible life journey. Even though the window of time isn’t all that extensive in the scheme of things, there’s so much happening here that it’s hard to really grasp just how much is going on at any given moment. It moves at a tight clip, and that robs some of the film’s emotional impact in the end.
Did Younger grab more than he can chew? Did he not pace himself accordingly? Based on the final product, it’s hard to say for sure. It’s passionate, often appropriately gritty and not afraid to address the conflicts our lead character faces with an aversion for melodrama and pettiness. Yet, Bleed for This still doesn’t communicate that gut-punch of powerhouse emotions that it wants to convey by its final act. What’s perhaps most underwhelming here is that it mostly leaves you with a shrug on your shoulder, waiting for its expected beats to come, all so that you can reach the logical conclusion and tie things up nicely. It doesn’t keep you gripped. You’re not left in suspense. You just expect what it’ll give, then get it.
For a stylist of a boxing film, it’s ironic how confused Bleed for This can be with its overall style. Often, Younger appears to be emulating The Fighter, yet the filmmaker doesn’t have the same respect, appreciation, or interest in how Pazineza’s town, eccentric family members, or general surroundings impact — or possibly even improve — his work inside the ring. If anything, he wants you to believe that Pazineza’s success was gained almost exclusively through his working relationship with Kevin. His father doubts him. His sisters expect the worse. His mother won’t watch his matches, though that’s mostly due to fear. The bookies would rather beat on anything but him. It lays on its rise-to-the-top with most of its fine corners sawed down or cut down into bite-sized pieces. There’s a chance Kevin and Vinny’s relationship was just as they dramatized it here, but that seems quite unlikely. Younger certainly doesn’t want anything to seem fake, yet there are simply some things that don’t seem even close to authentic.
Moreover, Martin Scorsese’s inspiration is apparent well beyond his executive producer credit. In addition to any other comparisons to the aforementioned Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, Bleed for This often wants to capture the veteran filmmaker’s extensive use of foul language, punchy verbal jabs to combat the physical ones thrown and more. It makes the overall movie seem less sincere, though it’s never quite a rip-off of anything made by the Oscar winner, to be perfectly clear. It’s more paying its dues than anything else, but it would be more interesting if it didn’t hide in those shadows. It needs its own rhythm, its own swing.
For those who want their boxing movies with a little more heft in their blows, you might need to look elsewhere. Cinderella Man, The Hurricane, Rocky, and more offer much more engaging, compelling films from in this specific genre, for instance. Bleed for This often falls victim of many cliches it wants to avoid, but to suggest it’s without merit would simply be foolish. The performances are strong. Sometimes very strong. The cinematography is well-done and gently observed. The editing, as I mentioned before, is quite good. But these elements rarely, if ever, come together to make the brilliant movie they want to provide. All the same, Bleed for This is still enjoyable, sometimes impactful lightweight entertainment. Those wanting a heavyweight will need to go elsewhere. Those who like their familiarity with an occasional change, however, will find themselves amused by the simple-yet-nicely-handled true story fable.
Bleed For This (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Vinny does something pompous.
Take a Drink: for every recognizable song on the soundtrack.
Take a Drink: every time Vinny gambles, literally, figuratively, and metaphorically.
Take a Drink: every time Vinny talks about fighting.
Take a Drink: every time Vinny gets beaten, either in the ring or in life.
Do a Shot: when it’s time to remove the bolts. (For the more advantageous, do a shot for each bolt).