BLEED FOR THIS: 2 STARS. “all macho posturing and turbo-charged momentum.”
The Miles Teller boxing film “Bleed for This,” like most sports movies, isn’t really about the sport. Sure there are TKOs and the smack of glove against skin, but really it’s about the indomitable human spirit with one of the greatest real life comebacks in sports history as a backdrop.
Teller plays Vincenzo Pazienza, a.k.a. Vinny Paz a.k.a. the Pazmanian Devil, a championship boxer in lightweight, light middleweight and super middleweight categories. At the beginning of the film he is a wild card, a talented pugilist, but an undisciplined one. The night before a big fight he hits the town, gambling. The next day Roger Mayweather (Peter ‘Kid Chocolate’ Quillin) pummels him in the ring, soundly thrashing the former champ.
Despite his manager insistence that he retire, Vinny lumbers on, working out with Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), Mike Tyson’s former trainer. Pumped up, he jumps two weight classes and becomes a champion in the light middleweight category before tragedy strikes.
Flush with cash after his win, he buys a sports car. Within hours of owning it he’s involved in an accident that leaves him with a broken neck. “How much time till I can fight again?” he asks his doctor. “I can’t say with certainty you’ll ever walk again,” comes the grim response. His doctor wants to fuse the bone, Vinny instead opts for a halo procedure that involves screwing a circular metal brace into his head for six months to stabilize the injury. During his recuperation Vin secretly works out, preparing himself for a return to the ring. Within thirteen months the halo is gone, and he’s on the comeback trail.
“Bleed For This” aims to be a bigger-than-life tale of resilience and perseverance over adversity but plays like a gritty television movie. Pazienza overcame great odds and proved a lot of people—including his doctors and trainers wrong—but he’s not a particularly likeable champ. Teller emphasizes the character’s never-say-die spirit, but instead of wining us over his cockiness comes off a caricature of chutzpah. Ditto the portrait of Pazienza’s hard-scrapple family. They fight, they argue and worship at a home altar so loaded with Catholic iconography it looks like a page out of the Italian Stereotypes 101 textbook. If the Order Sons of Italy in America were outraged by “The Sopranos” wait till they get a load of this bunch.
Writer-director Ben Younger is a muscular filmmaker, all macho posturing and turbo-charged momentum which may not do his characters any favours but works well when the movie is in the boxing ring.
The final fight scene hits hard with stylish flourishes, like dropping out all the sound safe for the smack of clubs against skin and a pep speech with flashbacks, but it is more compelling than anything that came before it.
As a retelling of one of the most unlikely comebacks in sports history “Bleed for This” succeeds in getting across its predictable ‘never-say-die’ lesson. It’s a shame Younger settle for a made-for-TV-movie sentiment instead of digging deeper to dins a subtext that would really knock the audience out.