The true story of Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller), a junior welterweight boxer who improbably won the junior middleweight championship after his trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart) moved him up two weight classes... Then even more improbably defended his belt after breaking his neck.
Originality need not be a prerequisite for enjoyment. If it were, the sports movie genre would never find an audience. The boxing movie, especially. And sure enough, Bleed For This, the latest member of the sweat-flinging subgenre, is steeped in familiarity. In Miles Teller’s Vinny ‘Paz’ Pazienza, it has at its core an amiable pugilist with strong echoes of Rocky Balboa, portrayed by an actor with all the physical dedication of De Niro in Raging Bull. In its portrayal of Vinny’s overbearing family, it brings vivid flashbacks of David O. Russell’s The Fighter, though this clan’s New York Italian rather than Boston Irish. In its unflinching presentation of the sport’s physical toll, it circles Million Dollar Baby. It has a rise-fall-return structure, mouthy weigh-ins, rock-pumped training montages in grimy-walled gyms, ring-corner pep-talks, bruises, blood and buckets of perspiration. And, unless you’re truly immune to the many charms of the big-screen boxer, it’s gripping entertainment.
Unless you’re truly immune to the many charms of the big-screen boxer, it’s gripping entertainment.
It hardly hurts that Vinny Paz’s true-life story is so remarkable. Yet writer-director Ben Younger, finally getting back to the form he displayed with his 2000 debut Boiler Room, assumes minimal viewer knowledge of the junior middleweight champ, and lays it out straight and chronological. It’s a smart strategy, though one which admittedly gives the film’s big dramatic beats greater impact on those who come in with the least knowledge of its subject. Early on, Bleed For This is a simple tale of a stubborn non-contender who refuses to throw in the towel. With his grizzled manager (Ted Levine) determined to ditch him, Vinny hooks up with unconventional trainer Kevin Rooney — played by a paunchy, balding Aaron Eckhart, who looks very Christian-Bale-in-American-Hustle. Their first encounter is a true meeting of the underdogs — the loser fighter and his loser mentor. Rooney’s glory days coaching Mike Tyson are a distant memory made only more unfocused through the trainer’s booze-induced haze. “You smell like liquor,” says Vinny. “You smell like Rhode Island,” the surly coach shoots back. Teller and Eckhart form a likeable double act, and present a convincing friendship. An entire film could have been made about how grudging respect grows between them, Rooney’s bold tactics vibing perfectly with his charge’s high-risk, ‘all in, all the time’ attitude. The written-off ‘Pazmanian Devil’ roars back into the ring, punches way above his original weight, defies all the naysayers and wins the championship.
But that’s only half the story.
At the movie’s mid-point, there’s a shockingly framed head-on car collision, and Vinny’s out for the count with a broken neck. Then an entirely new, and exquisitely agonising comeback begins. Ignoring all medical advice, he has a head-clamping ‘halo’ brace literally screwed into his skull and resolves to retrain — despite being told it’s not certain if he’ll ever walk again. This means a lot of running time is spent out of the ring for a boxing pic. For a while, Vinny’s greatest battles are with the grinding boredom of recovery and, an even worse foe, being treated like he is truly finished. “I’m getting pretty sick of people talking like I’m dead,” he complains. At this point, Bleed For This could have slipped into the mire of over-sentimentalised daytime-soapish drama. But Teller’s an actor with enough magnetism to keep you engaged. And, though we’re more used to seeing him play geeky, softer guys, Younger’s pulled off a casting coup with an actor whose already damaged features (the broken nose, those little scars) are put to maximal use. Every face tells a story, and Teller’s feels perfectly matched with Vinny’s. It will make you wince, tense up and wonder how damn excruciating it must have been to wear a medical device which looks more like a medieval torture implement. At times — such as during the squirmy close-ups of those screws puncturing Vinny’s skull — you wonder if Younger was taking notes from David Cronenberg.
Even if you don’t already know the full Paz narrative, you can guess where this is going. But so what? Younger’s script is like a flicked towel in a locker room and his attention to little details gives the film a naturalistic warmth. Did we need to know Vinny’s brother-in-law has a yen for ceramic elephants? No, but the movie’s all the richer for it. Younger even allows a little cliché-undercutting humour, such as a glorious pratfall by one of Vinny’s girlfriends during a slo-mo corridor stride.
The real victor here, though, is Teller. Buffed up way beyond his nerdier turn in Whiplash, he sells the commitment of an obsessive talent just as hard, and just as impressively.
It may be predictable, but Bleed For This still grabs with its astonishing against-all-odds true story, and its belter of a central performance from Miles Teller.