Watching Miles Teller getting pummeled as Vinny Pazienza, the boxer who came back from a broken neck to fight again, one might ask inquire: why the resurgence in boxing movies when the sport itself seems to be up against the ropes? Is it just nostalgia for bygone days? Or do audiences enjoy watching young men getting beaten up, even if they’re not superheroes? Or do young actors think that doing a “Raging Bull” clone will earn them Robert De Niro-level kudos? Or young directors assume that rivaling Martin Scorsese’s feat in that movie will make them hot properties?
Whatever the cause, we now have “Bleed for This,” which though written and directed by Ben Younger numbers Scorsese himself among its executive producers. It’s a tale of dogged perseverance in the face of adversity that narrates the pugilist’s life only in part, beginning with his 1988 championship loss to Roger Mayweather as a junior welterweight always having difficulty in keeping his weight down, followed by his switch, under prodding from new trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhardt) to the junior middleweight division. That resulted in his successful title fight against Gilbert Dele in 1991. Then followed the horrific auto accident from which he had to struggle to recover, and eventually his championship win over Roberto Duran (in the super middleweight class) in 1994 (The recent Duran biopic, “Hands of Stone,” ended more than a decade before that bout, so there is no direct overlap between the two pictures.)
Younger’s treatment of this inspirational tale is what might be termed a dogged but ultimately rather flatfooted entry in the boxing genre. By beginning in medias res, as it were, Younger skips over the opportunity to say much about the family dynamic that made “Paz,” as he was called, the sort of cocky fellow he was. And his family become little more than a colorfully stereotypical Italian clan: we aren’t even informed that Angelo, Vinny’s father, owns a gym himself until fairly late in the picture, though Ciaran Hinds, chewing the scenery mercilessly, makes him a controlling figure in his son’s corner from the very start. His mother Louise (Katey Sagal) barely comes into focus at all, except for her superstitious refusal to watch her son’s actual matches, and his sister Doreen (Amanda Clayton) just comes across as a sharp-tongued broad with a thick Rhode Island accent.
There is compensation, however, in the guys in the fight game: they’re stereotypes, too, but amusing ones. The best of the lot is Eckhart’s Rooney, whose down-to-earth, no-nonsense tone strikes a solid chord in the proceedings, especially in contrast to Angelo. More subdued but equally effective is Ted Levine as Vinny’s previous mentor Lou Duva, who has the temerity to suggest—“on HBO!” as a furious Angelo fumes—that Vinny should retire after his loss to Mayweather.
And what of Teller? He’s a consistently energetic actor, and throws himself into the sequences in the ring, though Younger, his cinematographer Larkin Seiple and his editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier fail to endow them with the kinetic energy familiar from other boxing epics, beginning with “Bull.” (They do, on the other hand, give a stunning immediacy to the car crash in which Vinny is injured.) Teller’s performance elsewhere is good but not outstanding. He gives the character some pathos in the long middle stretch of the picture, when Vinny is outfitted with the “halo” that keeps his neck immobile while his injury heals, and grit to the following sequences of slow, agonizing rehabilitation, but in the end his turn—like so much else in the film—falls short of bringing the story fully to life.
That doesn’t mean that “Bleed for This” is a bad movie, but it is a disappointing one, just as “Hands of Stone” was. Neither of them—though based on real-life tales of battles against long odds—manages to equal “Creed,” which—though totally fictional—carried greater punch. Perhaps moviemakers should call a halt to these sorts of films. After all, as Levine’s Dura sagely observes, sometimes the right choice is just to hang up the gloves.