Bleed for This, Ben Younger’s (Boiler Room) biopic centered on pugilist great Vinny Pazienza, is not the boxing film to end all boxing films, but it is still pretty damn good. Younger takes an incredible story of human strength, perseverance, and hardship and delivers a fresh cross-genre film with a stellar cast in tow. The director has a whole lot of story to fit into 120 minutes, which presents some pacing hiccups, but not in any way that proves too detrimental to the film’s overall impact.
Younger’s film tells the story of Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza (Miles Teller), a risk-taking, wily 1980s world champion boxer. After a near-fatal car crash leaves him with a broken neck and dangerously close to permanent spinal damage, Vinny’s boxing career looks grim. With the hope of getting back into the ring someday, Vinny opts out of a spinal fusion surgery that would save his spine, but would take him out of boxing for good, and instead chooses the extremely painful halo brace that would allow his neck and spine to heal naturally if all goes well. Within a month’s time, Vinny begins training again while still in the halo contraption, keeping it a secret from his family, and eventually enlisting his talented – yet alcoholic – coach Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart) to get him back into fighting shape and make one of the most astounding comebacks in sports history.
Younger has a lot riding against him going into Bleed for This. One such obstacle is it being one of many boxing films to come out in recent years (the third of 2016). More pressing, though, was its involved story needed to be told from start to finish, – pre-accident, injury, recovery, and comeback – with several characters needing their due diligence, – Vinny, Kevin, Vinny’s father (Ciaran Hinds), and Vinny’s mother (Katey Sagal) – and Younger having the careful task of fitting it all in without obvious notice. He actually does quite commendable and seemingly effortless work with the story, never straying from Vinny’s personal journey while incorporating countless supporting elements. There are moments that feel rushed, such as the short period between Vinny’s halo removal and his first title fight, but these small pacing issues are never bothersome.
Another element putting pressure on the film is the crossing of genres (sports/boxing and biopic/drama) and Younger’s execution within these categories. What I believe to be one of the film’s best selling points is that Younger doesn’t allow the genre rule-book to box in his film. This is a story about the human spirit and personal struggle as much (if not more) as it is about boxing. Likewise, it is a story about a family, a partnership, and what it truly means to live. It is also for this reason, however, that this would not be a film to recommend as one of the greatest boxing movies of all time. Younger’s focus is on the man more than the sport, although the love and admiration for boxing and its fight-for-your-life symbolism is also a constant presence.
Within all of this, Younger also incorporates natural humor throughout (even feeling like a David O. Russell film at certain points). Every character is a “character” in the best way possible, from Vinny and his sober-yet-wild playboy antics and fiery personality, to Kevin Rooney with his functioning alcoholism, and to his comically close-knit Italian Rhode Island family, including a smart-talking sister, her bozo fiance, and an Orthodox, religious icon-loving, chronically nervous mother. The backdrop of the ‘80s also presents opportunity for humor and flare, with attention to detail clearly spent by costume designer Melissa Vargas (Nerve) in a wacky and colorful ode to the era.
Vinny’s signature mustache is another fun indicator of the epoch (and his flourished personality). While it threatens to hinder Teller’s performance more than help it, the actor makes his character much more than his distracting facial hair. While this performance doesn’t quite touch his Whiplash role, Teller absolutely does what he does best as Vinny. That is, no matter how over-confident or egocentric his character may be (as is also the case with many of Teller’s past roles), he always finds the heart, humanity, and humility within his story – with Vinny being a shining example. Teller is a master at tone change, and it will likely be said throughout his career that while he exudes unfailing confidence, he also has the proclivity to hit hard emotionally, proving his consistently growing maturity as an actor.
The film’s true standout, though, is Aaron Eckhart as boxing coach Kevin Rooney (who famously trained Mike Tyson in his early career). The typically suave Eckhart is nearly unrecognizable as Rooney, playing the hard knocks out-of-shape trainer with dominating subtlety. While living up to his stereotype, he is in no way a caricature thanks to Eckhart, who balances the character marvelously between his own personal demons and his inherently playful charisma. Eckhart and Teller’s chemistry is equally animated and intimate as well, giving Younger’s film two highly equipped anchors.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Bleed for This delivers as a film unbeholden to its genre(s). Younger gives audiences great fight sequences (bolstered by intricate sound mixing and soundtrack incorporation) while easily shifting tone to the story’s quiet character-driven drama. Teller and Eckhart’s copacetic rapport grounds the film and its zany era-appropriate antics in genuine feeling and reality. And although the film holds true to its inspiration-inducing maxims and obligatory montages, it escapes cliche and delivers the real Pazmanian Devil a complex and compelling biopic.