“BLEED FOR THIS” MOVIE REVIEW. Much like the fighter whose (mostly) true story inspired it, Bleed for This, the biopic about Vinny Pazienza now in wide release, is something of an overachiever. And that is in keeping with the history of boxing movies, which tend to pass or whiff on film treatments of the lives and careers of indisputably great fighters, if only because tales of up-from-the-bootstraps guys from the wrong side of the track seem to make for more compelling drama.
At an advance screening in suburban New Orleans Thursday evening, my wife and I were part of a small but hardcore audience (well, maybe not my wife) of seven boxing buffs, unlike the larger throngs who were filling the multiplex for showings of such mainstream box-office smashes as Fantastic Beats (and Where to Find Them) and Doctor Strange.
I didn’t solicit the opinions of the five other would-be critics as we all exited the theater, but their demeanor suggested they were generally pleased by what they had seen, which made me think that they at least had a rudimentary knowledge of the heroic but limited fighter and flawed human being who had inspired director/screenwriter Ben Younger to bring his tale to the silver screen.
Almost from its beginning, Bleed for This makes the point that Pazienza (he has since had his name legally shortened to Vinny Paz) was a warts-and-all guy, a sort of antihero in a sport virtually teeming with them. Consistently drained from trying to make the 140-pound super lightweight limit, Pazienza, played with elan by 29-year-old Miles Teller, arrives late for the weigh-in for his title bout against WBC champion Roger Mayweather because he is encased in plastic wrap and furiously pedaling on a stationary bout, trying to take off that last bit of excess weight.
In short order, other scenes of Pazienza reveal that he enjoys casino gambling, strip clubs and a succession of bimbos du jour nearly as much as testing his manhood inside the ropes.
But those semi-tawdry sides of Pazienza in and of themselves might not have been enough to have a Hollywood studio commit $16 million to a project that never would be considered, much less green-lighted, were it not for the Halo, an immobilizing, 10-pound neck brace secured to his skull with four metal bolts.
What sets Pazienza apart from so many others of similar backgrounds is the horrific car crash that left him with a broken neck, prompting the seemingly miraculous comeback, against medical advice, that allowed him to resume his boxing career.
Like other boxing writers who appreciate a good and relatable story we can pass along to our readers, I gravitated toward Pazienza’s longshot quest like the man himself might have toward his favorite “gentleman’s cabaret” or blackjack table. How many other fighters would have literally risked spending the remainder of their life in a wheelchair, or worse, because life without boxing would have meant no life at all?
“When I was laying on the cot (recuperating after surgery), all I was thinking about was, `What am I going to do after this?,’” Pazienza tells his father, who would rather see his son healthy and retired from the ring than to proceed with a risky comeback that could leave him a quadriplegic. “Am I going to train kids at the gym? Bartend at night, talk about how I used to be a fighter? Used to be world champ? Nah. This is what I do. I don’t know how not to do it.”
The big fight happens – it seems as if every boxing movie “based on a true story” ends on an upbeat note, with its protagonist celebrating a career-defining victory. And, as is often the case, that is when fact and fiction tend to separate. Yes, Pazienza does make a career-high seven-figure purse for his June 25, 1994, bout with the legendary Roberto Duran, but it is for the outer-fringe IBC super middleweight title, not one of the four more widely recognized championships (WBC, WBA, IBF, WBO). It is troubling that Younger would have unsuspecting moviegoers believe that Pazienza’s newly acquired belt was as legitimate as the ones he had won previously (IBF lightweight, against Greg Haugen, and WBA super welterweight, against Gilbert Dele), or that he portrayed Duran, who was 43 and in decline, as all that he once had been.
In that respect, Bleed for This is very much like an even better movie, 2010’s The Fighter, which detailed the strained relationship between “Irish” Micky Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg) and his drug-addicted older half-brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). The Fighter was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Oscars went to Bale as Best Supporting Actor and Melissa Leo, who got the golden statuette for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Ward’s mother. But despite its artistic success, the climactic fight scene – in which Ward, whose bop-’til-you-drop ring strengths closely mirrored Pazienza’s — wins the “world” super lightweight championship on an eighth-round TKO of the favored Shea Neary, although the title that was on the line was another low-rent version, in this case the WBU’s.
There are other unmistakable parallels between Bleed for This and The Fighter. Both pivotal figures are from blue-collar New England towns (the Italian-American Pazienza is from Cranston, R.I., the Irish-American Ward from Lowell, Mass.), with large and loud ethnic families that seem to have been imagined by central casting.
Which brings me back to my original premise, that the creative forces behind boxing movies find more gold to be panned from the hardscrabble lives of the likes of Pazienza and Ward than from the best and brightest stars ever to have laced up padded gloves. Oh, sure, there was a decent biopic about Muhammad Ali (2001’s Ali, starring Will Smith in the title role) and an all-time classic about former middleweight champ Jake La Motta (1980’s Raging Bull, starring Academy Award winner Robert DeNiro), but to date there have been no film treatments of the lives of Sugar Ray Robinson and Archie Moore, and a couple of critically deficient flicks about Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. Go figure.
Not that it is referred to in Bleed for This, but the then-13-year-old Pazienza was seriously turned on to the fight game after he saw Rocky in 1976, Sylvester Stallone’s opus about a Philadelphia pug who somehow gets a shot at the heavyweight title and proves that he wasn’t just another bum from the neighborhood.
“Changed my life,” the real Pazienza told me when I asked about what motivated him to fully devote himself to the sweet science. “I made up my mind right then and there that I was going to become a fighter and win a world championship someday.”
With or without that Halo, it was bound to be difficult sledding for a scrapper whose indomitable heart allowed him to overcome certain obstacles, like a deficiency of natural talent. To his credit, Younger does not attempt to portray Pazienza as something more than he was. In the midst of taking a major beatdown from Roger Mayweather in the first filmed fight sequence, the voice of HBO analyst Larry Merchant tells viewers that “If will and want-to alone were all that mattered, Pazienza can beat this guy. But will can only take you so far unless you bring some skill along with it.”
Siding with Merchant is Pazienza’s manager, Lou Duva (played by the less-rotund than the real deal Ted Levine), who advises his well-bruised fighter to retire after he was tuned up by Mayweather. “You got heart, kid,” the cinematic Duva says. “But you wear it on your f—— chin. I seriously think you should consider hanging it up.”
For what it’s worth, Bleed for This received a mostly favorable 64 score from Rotten Tomatoes, which is a composite of ratings from movie critics who might or might not know the difference between a left hook and a fish hook. While reviewers can and did give deserved plaudits to Teller, Aaron Eckhart (as Pazienza trainer Kevin Rooney) and Ciaran Hinds (as Vinny’s father Angelo), how many picked up on the occasional factual swing and miss, as they probably did in biopics about Ali, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (1999’s The Hurricane) and James J. Braddock (2005’s Cinderella Man)?
“This is a boxing movie that actually gets boxing,” wrote Glenn Kenny, a film reviewer for the New York Times, which has slashed its boxing coverage to the bone in recent years, weakening its proclaimed position as the paper of record, as least so far as that sport is concerned. (I once was seated at ringside for the Tyson-Douglas fight in Tokyo with a Times reporter who was assigned to its Tokyo bureau, and whose familiarity with all things pugilistic was, let us say, lacking.)
The Detroit News’ Adam Graham noted that “Teller is magnetic in the lead role, and he helps Bleed for This transcend boxing movie clichés.”
Take this for what it’s worth, but you could do worse than spending a couple of hours watching Miles Teller slide into the persona of “The Pazmanian Devil” and making it vibrant again.
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