- Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016
A melee has broken out in the boxing film. The genre's ring is so crowded, a fighter leaning back for a left hook might inadvertently sock the wrong opponent. Training montages could be combined to make a legitimate exercise video.
The films are literally bleeding together: "Southpaw," ''Hands of Stone," ''Grudge Match," ''Creed" and now "Bleed for This." Most of these have loyally kept to the boxing movie's conventions; only Ryan Coogler's terrific "Creed" had moves of its own (and it was a reboot).
Ben Younger's "Bleed for This," starring Miles Teller, distinguishes itself by doubling down on some of the tried-and-true formulas. It's a comeback times two.
Teller plays Vinny Pazienza ("Paz" or "the Pazmanian Devil"), a lightweight and middleweight champ from blue-collar Providence, Rhode Island. He isn't exceptionally powerful or technical, but he thrives on pain. In the ring, he doesn't seem to get fired up until he's been hit a little. "You got heart, kid," one character tells him, "but you wear it on your chin."
He's also brash. Though he refuses alcohol or drugs, Vinny will gamble past midnight before a fight or show up to a weigh-in in leopard-spotted underwear. (This is the late '80s, complete with big hair, Corvettes, black shades and leather jackets aplenty.) This makes him a perfect role for Teller who, following his turn as the tyrannically-tutored jazz drummer in "Whiplash," is steadily building an impressively masochistic resume.
Vinny's boxing career is on the ropes, and after a bad loss, he's left pleading his promoters for just another fight. When a knockout lands him in the hospital, he tells the doctor: "The pain doesn't bother me."
This, it turns out, is tempting fate. Thanks to a rejuvenating new trainer, Kevin Rooney (an excellent Aaron Eckhart, almost unrecognizable with a bald head and round stomach), Vinny's career finally takes an upswing. But this is quickly wiped out, on a run to Foxwoods, by a car crash that nearly breaks his spine. In the wreckage, Vinny's bloody unconscious head rests gently on a shattered window as if it were a pillow.
He's fitted with a "halo," a metal contraption that surrounds his head to keep his neck straight. Told he might not walk again, let alone fight, Vinny resolutely embarks on an almost quixotic comeback.
The film's finest scenes are of a Vinny, a man built to hit things, wired with steel so that he can't touch anything let alone jab it. One less-than-enthusiastic girlfriend, who gets her hair caught in it, is replaced by a more accommodating brunette: "It's like braces times a thousand," she says, enthusiastically. Vinny's sister, across the kitchen table, deadpans to Vinny: "She might be the one."
Younger, the director of "Boiler Room" and "Prime," films Vinny's journey in a laudably unsentimental approach. One of Teller's finest qualities, too, is his disinterest in anything corny or saccharine. He's a movie star, without the usual sheen.
Most of the film's big moments, even its triumphant fight scenes, are sufficient if uninspired. At this point, the boxing movies are even stepping over each in the ring; one major fight here is with Roberto Duran, the subject of "Hands of Stone."
"Bleed for This" has some colorful New England flavor (particularly thanks to the great Ciaran Hinds as Vinny's father). But that, too, feels lifted from David O. Russell's "The Fighter."
"Bleed for This" is ultimately a straightforward, well-acted parable about taking punches. Maybe that's why boxing movies are everywhere these days: people, feeling beat-up, want the inspiration. Or maybe if the standard boxing tropes keep swinging, they just want to duck.
"Bleed for This," an Open Road Films release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "language, sexuality/nudity and some accident images." Running time: 117 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.