A boxing movie that happily avoids the clichés of most boxing movies, “Chuck” follows a typical rise-fall-redemption arc, but does so in personal rather than pugilistic terms. It’s based on the life of Chuck Wepner, a heavyweight boxer who was the New Jersey State Champion when he was tapped in 1975 for a world title bout against Muhammad Ali—mostly because, as promoter Don King supposedly said, he was the only ranked contender who was a white guy. Against all expectations he almost managed to stay the full fifteen rounds (the bout was stopped on a TKO with only nineteen seconds remaining); he also managed to send the champ to the mat at one point (although it’s argued that he stepped on Ali’s foot to take him down).
Philippe Falardeau’s biopic doesn’t completely eschew fight and training footage—it opens with a brief sequence of the final moments of Wepner’s bout for the New Jersey championship, and a longer one of the fight with Ali (played, decently, by Pooch Hall)—but these are actually quite secondary to an emphasis on how Wepner (Liev Schreiber) handles (or more accurately, doesn’t handle) his sudden fame—which is astronomically increased when his unlikely semi-triumph becomes the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s amazingly successful underdog tale “Rocky.” (Incidentally, it’s made clear in the fight sequences why Wepner came to be known—to his displeasure—as “The Bayonne Bleeder.” In fact, “The Bleeder” was the movie’s original title. Maybe it sounded too much like a horror flick.)
If one wanted to be unkind, he might suggest that the decision to minimize the ring action resulted from the fact that Schreiber is at his least convincing in those pugilistic moments: it strains credulity to think of him even as a mediocre boxer. But he certainly captures the persona of Wepner as a brawler with a penchant for confrontation and an eye for pretty women, even if he is married to long-suffering Phyll (Elisabeth Moss), a post office clerk with whom he has a young daughter. Chuck has a lot of pals on bar stools in the places he regularly drops into—something that stands him in good stead in his job as a liquor salesman (he tells us, at one point in his running narration, that he had previously been an enforcer for a loan shark, but was too nice to break legs). But his closest chum is John (amiably goofy Jim Gaffigan), a semi-doofus schlub who’s always ready—if not always able—to help, though Wepner’s manager/trainer Al Braverman (bulldog Ron Perlman) is often the one pulling the strings. Chuck also has a brother, John (Michael Rappaport, in one of his strongest turns in years), but they’ve long been estranged.
In any event, the plot kicks in big time following the Ali bout, with a feisty bartender named Linda (Naomi Watts) attracting his attention, though she’s not interested in a married man. Though he’s still not well off financially, Wepner becomes even more of a local celebrity, his status exponentially increased by the success of “Rocky,” which will eventually lead to a meeting with Stallone (Morgan Spector, doing a good impression) and—he hopes—a small part in the inevitable sequel. By then, however, he’s gotten addicted to cocaine, something that—along with all his other flaws—leads to the collapse of his marriage and estrangement from his daughter. He even gets involved in small-time drug-dealing, leading to his arrest, an event that ironically proves a blessing in disguise.
It’s obvious that by the close “Chuck” has become a quirkily skewered parable of the American Dream gone awry but ultimately set right again, and writers Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl and Michael Cristofer do a good job of laying out the trajectory of Wepner’s rise, fall and redemption with economy and skill, and Falardeau directs well enough, despite the relative flatness of the fight scenes (especially in comparison to films of this sort since “Raging Bull”). Most importantly, he gives his fine cast ample opportunity to shine. Schreiber is at his rambunctious best here, as voluble as he was calm and collected in “Spotlight.” Among the supporting cast Moss stands out, but Watts practically disappears into her role, almost as fully as Perlman does not. As noted above, Rappaport and Spector are outstanding in relatively small turns, and Gaffigan is charmingly befuddled as Chuck’s best friend.
Mention should be made of Inbal Weinberg’s production design and Vicki Farrell’s costuming, which catch the details of the period without overdoing them—and of periodic clips from “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” with whose character of over-the-hill fighter Mountain Rivera played by Anthony Quinn Wepner identified—to provide a colorful background. Cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc gives the images a gritty, lived-in look, as well as providing a clever transition to the inevitable switch to the real-life Wepner prior to the closing credits.
“Chuck” will never overshadow “Rocky,” any more than Wepner overshadowed Balboa. But it provides a nifty footnote to Stallone’s famous film.