Professional boxing has been on the ropes for a while now, but you wouldn’t know it. Hollywood can’t seem to throw in the towel. Hard on the heels of Southpaw, Creed, and Hands of Stone, comes director Ben Younger’s Bleed for This — a biopic of the blue-collar bruiser Vinny Pazienza, starring Miles Teller. Younger, who made a next-big-thing splash with his debut film, 2000’s Boiler Room, has been largely AWOL for the past decade. So it’s nice to see him back behind the camera where someone of his talent belongs, even if Bleed for This doesn’t end up doing much that’s new in the genre. With the exception of maybe two scenes, you’ve seen everything in this movie before.
The movie chronicles the rise and fall (and rise) of Teller’s Pazienza, a likable-enough palooka from Rhode Island who’s best remembered for being able to take a beating in the ring without ever losing the sick grin on his face. He seemed to get off on getting his mug pounded into hamburger. It takes all types, I guess. Pazienza was a tough-as-nails champ from a boisterous, extremely Catholic Italian-American family (his parents are played by Katey Sagal and Ciaran Hinds, who sports a bad wig and an even worse accent). Again, we know these types by rote. They’re New England working-class 101 — a watered-down version of the Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg’s clan in the (much better) The Fighter.
Younger, who also wrote the film, knows that he’s trafficking in clichés here. And he doesn’t try to sidestep those clichés. He steers into them and attempts to artfully rearrange them the best he can. He’s lucky that he has Teller to help him out. As Whiplash showed, Teller is capable of electrifying intensity. And he brings that live-wire energy to playing Pazienza. The same resilience that allowed him to take such punishment for a living ends up being his salvation when, shortly after winning his first title belt, he breaks his neck in a grisly head-on car crash. (I’m not giving anything away, this is not only in the trailer but well known to anyone who follows the sport even remotely.) While his doctors weren’t sure that Pazienza would ever walk again, he vowed to return to boxing. It may sound hokey, but it also happens to be true.
With his bulked-up physique, wispy mustache, and reckless masochism, Teller turns what could have been a goombah cartoon into a real person. Aaron Eckhart, as his hangover-prone alcoholic trainer won’t win any points for originality either, but his performance goes nearly as deep as Teller’s. These are two men who are written off as washed-up who need one another.
The fight scenes that serve as bookends to the film’s middle-act tragedy are adequate rather than thrilling, which is a shame. But the film’s real dramatic heart is its middle chapter, where Paz has to battle back from surgery that leaves him looking like Frankenstein’s monster in a medieval metal “halo” brace encircling his head, with screws bolted directly into his skull. The irony of a fighter whose nickname was “The Pazmanian Devil” wearing a tarnished angel’s halo is hard to miss. Like the rest of the film, it hits you on the head so hard you might see cartoon stars and cuckoo clocks. B-