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‘Bleed For This’ (review)

bleed-for-this-posterProduced by Bruce Cohen,  Chad A. Verdi,
Emma Tillinger Koskoff,Noah Kraft,
Pamela Thur, Ben Younger

Story by Pippa Bianco, Angelo Pizzo, Ben Younger
Written and Directed by Ben Younger
Starring Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart,
Katey Sagal, Ciarán Hinds, Ted Levine

It seems almost impossible to create a boxing story without including a comeback storyline. But to pull off a comeback story inside of a comeback story? Bleed For This attempts to give us a 2-for-1 deal, but the audience may be left wishing that one storyline was given top billing.

The film follows the true story of local Rhode Island boxer Vinny Pazienza who, after losing a major boxing match, jumped up weight classes and was able to claim a new title. Now this would have been enough fodder for a traditional sports film, but soon after winning Pazienza was in a near fatal car crash that left doctors and family not knowing whether he would walk again, let alone fight.

The tale of how he rebuilds himself without the support of his loved ones from a physically and personally beaten state to a form that will allow him to defend his title is where the best part of this Ben Younger (writer and director) movie lies.

The physical transformation of Miles Teller into a believable boxer is admirable. The form in the ring is somewhat clunky, but sparring scenes and training montages work. The most amazing change, however, goes to Aaron Eckhart as the pot-bellied balding trainer Kevin Rooney. He is nearly unrecognizable and gives a terrific performance as a gruff out-to-pasture foil to Teller’s earnest and cocky turn as Paz.

While Eckhart is completely believable in character, there is a nagging feeling that Teller never shakes of wearing rather than becoming the round-the-way guy that makes Pazienza’s story so likeable. He is a talented actor but the character of blue-collar working class cannot be thrown on like a pair of boxing shorts. However, the emotional turn in the center of the film works incredibly well with him at the helm.

Katey Segal is excellent as his worried Catholic mother, chain smoking and praying in a closet of porcelain iconography during the fights. The way she walks the line between fear of seeing her son get hurt but desperately needing to know what is happening onscreen would have been worth expanding.

Ciarán Hinds was appropriately allowed to grow from fierce and cocky manager-first to a remorseful father worried his son’s fate was the result of his endless pressure. Hinds’ Angelo Pazienza is a joy to watch. But even this does not do enough to explain to the audience how Paz got so incredibly single-minded about boxing. The movie could have used context from flashbacks or even a simple monologue about childhood to add some depth to the more predictable arcs.

While these types of films trend towards formulaic, the period of recovery in the center of the film takes an uncommon look at what happens when the body cannot be counted on. Here the movie shifts into its best, going from a traditional boxing story to a strong character study of determination.

Paz’s passion is the focus and boxing just happens to be the driving mechanism. Watching him languish but then find himself again is powerful. Sneaking down in the middle of the night to train in the basement after months of family dinners around a cramped Italian-American working class table where time seems to stand still is worth the full 120 minutes.

Younger only gives us about 45 of it, capping each end off with a Boxing Comeback 101 story. Seeing the capability and range of the actors in the middle somewhat cheapens the beginning and end, which would normally be perfectly serviceable fare.

Each movie could have stood on its own, a story about a comeback after a public and embarrassing fight in Vegas or the battle to regain control of one’s life after a horrific accident. But in trying to do both Younger gives us too much formula and not enough heart.

You’ll enjoy the show, but don’t expect to be knocked out.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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