Liev Schreiber’s dead-on impersonation of Wepner makes Chuck work

MOVIE REVIEW — The closing credits indicate that the screenplay for Chuck, the new movie about the life of rough-around-the-edges brawler Chuck Wepner, who got a dream shot at Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight championship and became a sort of folk hero for knocking “The Greatest” down (maybe, or maybe not) in the ninth round, was written by collaborators Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Cristofer and star Liev Schreiber. That might be technically correct, but the most vivid depiction of the real Wepner, not the reel one, was word-painted by the late, great Sports Illustrated writer Mark Kram, boxing’s poet laureate.

In an SI cover story that appeared in its March 24, 1975, edition, which was the actual date that Wepner was to challenge Ali in the Richfield (Ohio) Coliseum, although the magazine hit newsstands a few days prior to the event, there was a tight close-up of “The Bayonne Bleeder’s” scarred visage and a headline that blared They Have Kept Him in Stitches. What followed was a gripping, unsparing account of every no- or limited-talent pug who leaves bits and pieces of himself on blood-splattered canvases while chasing the impossible dream that Wepner briefly got to live out, and which has made him an iconic figure well beyond the obligatory 15 minutes of fame most others of similar circumstance might have enjoyed. Kram’s lead read thusly:

The face used to be a map of the careers of some fighters. It showed where they had been, the way they traveled and how much they endured for the sake of a trip that meant little to anyone except themselves or the promoter of the moment who gave them a few hundred to fill out a card, to be a gallant victim. You don’t see many of them anymore, but once when most towns had a small club, there were long columns of those faces moving across boxing’s landscape. It was a hard, busted-down life, one of dressing rooms with a single light bulb and no shower, of hotel rooms that smelled of disinfectant and offered smeared mirrors that would reveal over and over an awful truth as the finger climbed over new bumps and found its way through ridges of scar tissue to fresh stitching, of dim side-street bars where loneliness and hurt could be drawn from the body and mind.

For much of an up-and-down career that hewed closely to Kram’s grim description of the fate to which most of Wepner’s ilk are predestined, Wepner was, to borrow a line from Rocky, the multiple-Academy Award-winning  surprise hit of 1977 that has kept the former Marine in the public eye nearly as much as did his ultimately doomed confrontation with Ali (a battered and bloodied Wepner was stopped in the 15th round, just 19 seconds before the final bell was to ring), Wepner strove to prove he wasn’t “just another bum from the neighborhood.” That he succeeded, even before the Ali fight dropped into his lap like manna from heaven, owed in no small part to his natural gregariousness, his periodic upsets of favored opponents (the most notable being former WBA heavyweight titlist Ernie Terrell), his uncommonly high threshold of pain and the take-two-to-land-one willingness of every overachieving scrapper that identified Wepner more than any fingerprint possibly could.  It might be argued that Wepner and another craggy heavyweight of similar accomplishment and notoriety, Randall “Tex” Cobb, are tied for second behind Carmen Basilio in the all-time competition for having the most fight-altered features. The difference, of course, is that Basilio was an  all-time great, a world champion in two weight classes and the inspiration for the founding of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y. Wepner and Cobb – whose life also would make for a pretty interesting movie – were determined pluggers who found themselves in the right place at the right time, if only briefly, and were the beneficiaries of unique particulars that set them apart from so many others who never rose above the short purses, single light bulb dressing rooms and cheap hotel rooms that smelled of disinfectant.

It falls to Schreiber, who has more than a few ties to the pugilistic arts, to make the now-78-year-old Wepner not only accessible to aging fight fans who remember his limited heyday, but younger moviegoers who know him only from Showtime’s gritty Ray Donovan series or his voice-overs for HBO Sports. Tall, like the 6-foot-5 Wepner, and with the ambling build of a fighter, Schreiber not only embodies the physical presence of the man he is portraying, but most of his North Jersey nuances, as Robert DeNiro did with the Bronx-bred Jake LaMotta in 1980’s classic Raging Bull.

Just as the sport of boxing has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence in 2017, so, too, has boxing-on-celluloid. In the recent past fight fans have been able to compare the actual lives and careers of Roberto Duran (2016’s Hands of Stone) and Vinny Pazienza (2016’s Bleed for This) with movies purporting to tell their mostly true tales. And while Chuck does not quite rise to the level of high art, as did Raging Bull or Rocky, which writer-star Sylvester Stallone patterned in large part on Wepner, it offers proof that the fight game still is a mother lode that Hollywood can mine, if only the right script and the right players are part of the project. But even if a particular flick is a figurative losing decision, each new round at your local multiplex keeps boxing a bit more relevant than it otherwise might be at a time when the prevailing theme is that it is hemorrhaging much of its old-school popularity.

The small details for Chuck are spot-on:  the garish 1970s clothing styles, the funky songs of the era, the rampant drug culture – but, ultimately, the success or failure of any film hinges on the quality of the direction and the acting. I don’t claim to be particularly familiar with the work of Canadian director Philippe Falardeau, but Schreiber nails Wepner nearly as much as Ali’s rapid-fire punches did in the ring, and Elisabeth Moss (as Wepner’s oft-cheated-on first wife, Phyllis) and Naomi Watts (as sympathetic barmaid and future second wife Linda) convincingly nail their parts as well. Watts’ easy manner with Schreiber is to be expected, as the recently separated couple were partners in real life for 11 years, and Pooch Hall, as Ali, also meshes well with the star as he portrays the black half-brother to the lead character in Ray Donovan.

But most daunting task of anyone on the Chuck crew might have fallen to the makeup artist charged with transforming Schreiber’s handsome, outdoors-guy face into a reasonable facsimile of Wepner’s ground-chuck mug. That remarkable tapestry of misshapen flesh received over 300 stitches over the course of his crimson-tinged career, a whopping 120 coming after Sonny Liston carved him up as if he were a Thanksgiving turkey, obliging a four-hour procedure that more required a seamstress than a surgeon. Wepner might not have liked being dubbed “The Bayonne Bleeder,” but it was a sobriquet that fit him better than diamonds on Elizabeth Taylor. It is the image of a defiant Wepner, both eyes nearly swollen shut and cut to ribbons, trying to survive to the final bell, that is almost as much a part of his Cinderella story as the fact that he floored Ali with a body shot, a knockdown that Ali always has maintained was the result of Wepner standing of his foot and causing him to lose his balance.

Chuck, which has a running time of 1 hour, 38 minutes, has received a 70 percent favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with a “fresh” rating from 31 of 44 reviewers. This story presumably hikes that total to 32 of 45. But, as was the case with the actual Wepner against the vastly superior Ali, Chuck no doubt will be thrashed at the box office by Guardians of the Galaxy II, which is packing theaters and features an armed, talking raccoon in outer space.

If life were fair, Wepner, no cartoonish figment of someone’s imagination even if he did once mix it up with Victor the Bear in a charity event, would beat the snot out of that talking raccoon. Then again, life, just like boxing, sometimes bestows its favors in the most unfathomable ways.

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