D: Ben Younger / 117m
Cast: Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Katey Sagal, Ciarán Hinds, Ted Levine, Jordan Gelber, Amanda Clayton, Daniel Sauli, Peter Quillin, Jean Pierre Augustin, Edwin Rodriguez
True stories from the world of sport always aim for the inspirational, to show an individual or a team face up to and defeat the odds (which are often stacked against them). There’s room for self-doubt, absolutely there is, and there’s room for the odd setback or stumble along the way to – usually – championship glory, the miracle comeback, or both. Bleed for This, the true story of boxer Vinny Pazienza (Teller), is a movie that includes a miracle comeback and championship glory. As such it should be a powerful, gripping feelgood story that grabs the audience’s attention and sympathies from the start, and then puts them through the same emotional wringer that the main character(s) went through. Well, the key phrase is “it should be”. Bleed for This, however, looks and sounds as if it doesn’t know what an emotional wringer is, let alone be able to put an audience through it.
The problem here is that, prior to the car accident that saw Vinny Pazienza suffer a broken neck (which could have meant his not walking ever again, let alone boxing), and way before he decided he was going to ignore doctor’s orders and work out while still wearing the halo that allowed his neck to heal normally, the boxer’s life wasn’t one that warranted a movie being made about it. He’d had a relatively successful career early on as a lightweight, but fighting at junior welterweight he found himself on a title losing streak. He moved up to junior middleweight, and began winning again, culminating in winning WBA World Jr. Middleweight Championship against Gilbert Dele. But then came that fateful car accident, and four steel screws in his head.
Now, Pazienza’s life becomes interesting, now it becomes the kind of story that the movies would be interested in telling. And so, twenty-five years after that career-threatening injury, we have Bleed for This, the true(-ish) story of Vinny Pazienza’s recovery and return to the ring. It has all the hallmarks of a traditional tale of triumph over adversity, of how one man overcame tremendous physical trauma to continue doing the one thing that gives his life meaning. But as you watch the movie, as you see Vinny Pazienza’s story unfold, there’s one thing you’ll be asking yourself: namely, where’s the passion?
For, despite the drama and the incredible journey Pazienza took getting back into the ring, the movie version of that journey is about as exciting as watching the man train for two hours. Somewhere along the way, writer/director Ben Younger did something unforgivable: he forgot the passion. Sure there are times when Pazienza gets angry, but he’s also determined, sour, happy, uncertain, and resentful in equal measure. He experiences all the emotions you’d expect someone to experience in these circumstances, but the movie doesn’t allow any one of those emotions to have more screen time than the others, or to appear to have had any more effect on him. In essence, it’s all too neat.
Bleed for This is a movie that signposts a tremendous struggle ahead, as Pazienza begins working out in the basement of his parents’ home. Aided by his trainer, Kevin Rooney (Eckhart), Pazienza lifts weights, regains definition (and the small degree of self-respect the script allowed him to lose after the accident), and shocks everybody with his progress. At least, he would shock everybody, but Younger approaches this section of the movie as if it were nothing more than a necessary bridge between the Dele fight and the eventual showdown with Roberto Duran (which wasn’t his first fight after the accident, that was with Luis Santana). There’s roughly a year between the accident and the comeback fight, but you wouldn’t know it thanks to Younger. It feels like a much shorter period because Younger’s impatient to get Pazienza back in the ring, to get to that miracle moment he believes the audience is waiting for. He also can’t resist throwing in a bit of family drama, with Pazienza’s father (Hinds) suddenly revealing a sense of guilt for pushing his son too hard earlier in his career.
There are other times where the basic story gets padded out with superfluous moments that add little or nothing to the main narrative. It’s established from the very first shot of Rooney that he’s an alcoholic. But it keeps cropping up, and never goes anywhere; even when he’s arrested for attempted drunk driving, there’s no fallout or consequence to it. Where some movies would use this as an excuse to remove him from the corner for the big fight, thereby adding extra pressure on the fighter etc. etc., here it’s just padding, and flimsy, unnecessary padding at that. And then there’s the background machinations of fight promoters the Duva’s (Levine, Gelber), who are regularly accused of putting their interests ahead of Pazienza’s, as if the notion that they’re self-serving fight promoters has come completely out of left field (apologies for the mixed sports metaphor).
But if that wasn’t enough, if the pedestrian plotting, and the stale characters, and the excessive padding, just weren’t enough to make the movie difficult enough to enjoy already, Younger executes the coup de grace by fumbling the fights themselves. A mess of choppy editing, awkward camera angles, tight close ups, and fragmented jabs and blows, the fights do all they can to hide the fact that Teller can’t box. Maybe he didn’t have enough prep time to look convincing, maybe he was hired for his acting ability and not his ability to throw a punch – either way, Teller isn’t going to be heralded for showing off his “skills” in the squared circle.
As for the performances, Teller is hampered by the restraint Younger shows in his script, and several of the more dramatic moments in the movie show Teller in a good light, but it’s in the sense that he’s realised he’s only going to get so many opportunities to really shine. Eckhart is stuck with the worst receding hairline since Richard Attenborough in 10 Rillington Place (1971), while Sagal and Hinds do their best with characters who are two steps removed from being Italian-American parental stereotypes.
There is a decent, emotionally gripping drama to be made from Vinny Pazienza’s comeback against the odds, but Bleed for This really isn’t it. It’s professionally made, and technically at least, doesn’t fault, but the way in which the story has been told is less than successful. Younger neutralises the drama that occurs outside the ring, and in doing so, fails to recognise that in this case, that’s where the drama ultimately lies. And by doing that he lets down his talented cast, the audience, and the man who went through all of it – and who now gets to see a movie about him that can’t focus on him properly, or present effectively the struggle he went through to be worthy of a movie about his life.
Rating: 5/10 – with Bleed for This lacking a cohesive screenplay and a real sense of its main character’s determination not to give up (which scares him because it’s too easy), this is one biopic that lets everyone down; it also lacks flair, and a sense of urgency, and only impresses thanks to Larkin Seiple’s gloomy, shadow-filled cinematography (a surprisingly good fit for the material), and a robust sound mix that at least makes the fight sequences feel more aggressive than we can actually make out.