In 1991, Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller) was at the top of the professional boxing world, winning both the lightweight and junior middleweight championship belts. Shortly after, he is severely injured, suffering a broken spine, in a head-on car collision. The doctors tell him he may not walk, never mind fight, again but the dauntless Vinny Paz, the Pazmanian Devil, meets this challenge as he would any worthy opponent in an incredible comeback story in “Bleed for This.”
“Based on a true story’ can be a two-edged sword for filmmakers. But, writer/director/producer Ben Wheeler, in just his third feature outing behind the camera (his first was “Boiler Room (2000)”), has created a riveting real life tale of a boxer’s comeback, against all odds, to be champ again.
The filmmakers use a routine biopic template to tell Vinny’s inspiring comeback story, beginning with the weigh-in for his lightweight title bout. Not there, his manager, Lou Duva (Ted Levine), frantically calls Vinny’s room, only to find out that his championship contender is still trying to get his weight down. This sets the tone for the type of man Vinny is: he lives for the moment knowing, in his own mind, that he is indestructible. This is made evident with his cavalier behavior – gambling at casinos and going to strip clubs with his brother. Tommy (Tom Denucci) – the night before the championship fight.
The story following pre-accident Vinny uses montage sequences of the two bouts that made him only the second boxer in the modern history of the sport to receive both lightweight and junior middleweight belts. Then, “Bleed for This” begins its real story with the sudden, unexpected crash that left Vinny’s body badly broken. His doctor has little hope unless they fuse his spine, thus ending his hopes to return to the ring.
The feisty boxer refuses to give up and, against his doctor’s advice, agrees to wear a HALO neck brace that will immobilize his head, neck and back – a painful device that he must wear constantly for six months. It is during this slow and arduous healing process that the pugilist decides that he can and will fight again. It is this comeback story that is the power and substance of “Bleed for This” and it is an inspirational one for someone, anyone, who has given up.
Miles Teller, whether you are aware or not, has been making movies as an actor for a few years now, making his biggest splash in the Oscar-winning “Whiplash (2014),” convincingly playing the drums like a pro. With “Bleed for This,” the talented young actor holds the camera as the rightfully, not-to-be-beat champion who goes beyond the pale to secure his dream. The supporting cast is led by Clarian Hinds as Vinny’s dad, Angelo, who stands behind his son. Sweetly endearing is Katy Sagal as Vinny’s mom, who refuses to watch her boy on TV for all of his fights, until…
Aaron Eckhart does a yeoman’s job as “Rocky’s” Mickey surrogate Kevin Rooney, who takes on the job of training Vinny for his title bouts and, more importantly, stays with him in his greatest fight ever. The rest of the huge cast lend to the film’s spectacle, particularly the well-choreographed and realistically believable action in the ring. It is obvious the Teller has done his homework, not just with getting into trim fighting form, but with the mannerisms and style of the boxer, himself.
This is a good bookend film following “Hands of Stone” earlier this year, about the rise and victories and defeats of champ Roberto Duran – who, coincidentally, Vinny Paz defeated, twice, securing the IBC Super Middleweight title in 1994 and 1995. The numerous bouts through Paz’s career are shown with precision as the boxers on screen give convincing performances - sometimes, you can almost feel the blows that the fighters trade.
Boxing movies increasingly, over the years, show the fight game and in-the-ring action in realistic ways and “Bleed for This” is no exception. Solid direction, writing, acting and production make this both an exciting boxing flick and one that has to leave you in awe of what one man went through to live his dream. I give it a B+.
As an actor, Miles Teller has been one to watch from his very first role supporting Nicole Kidman in "Rabbit Hole." Since then he's shown a great amount of range, from the jovial singing, dancing friend of the "Footloose" remake to the troubled alcoholic teen of "The Spectacular Now" to "Whiplash's" obsessive drummer. He's cut a divisive figure in the press, insecurities mixed with actorly ambition. In "Bleed for This," he proves once again that he's got the goods as the Providence boxer, Vinny Pazienza, who made one of the most miraculous comebacks in sports history.
Writer/director Ben Younger ("Boiler Room") seeps his film in gritty Providence, Rhode Island realism. The blue collar home of Vinny's parents Angelo (Ciarán Hinds) and Louise (Katey Sagal) is decorated with Louise's religious icons and her son-in-law-to-be Jon's (Daniel Sauli, HBO's 'Show Me a Hero') ceramic elephant collection. The whole family lives together, dining in the kitchen. Celebrations are held at a local strip club.
Going with the current biopic model of focusing on a major event rather than an entire life, Younger compresses events, beginning with Vinny's near-fatal dehydration after struggling to keep in his weight class through his post-accident return to the ring in a title fight against Roberto Duran (who had his own story told earlier this year in "Hands of Stone." It should be noted that although Vinny Paz, as he became known, fought Duran twice, it would be many fights after his actual return bout against Luis Santana.)
Vinny was notable for moving up weight classes. After his hospitalization, Vinny had to beg his manager Lou Duva (Ted Levine, "The Silence of the Lambs") to book another fight. In order to comply with their contract, Lou ships Vinny off to upstate New York to train with another pro viewed as a has-been, former Tyson trailer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart, who's transformed himself almost beyond recognition). It is Rooney who believes Vinny should move from welterweight to middleweight and the duo surprise everyone when Vinny comes back to win the title in his new division. But shortly afterwards, Vinny is involved in a head-on collision, breaking his neck. His doctor strongly urges him to consider having his spine fused in hopes that he might walk again, but Vinny's more concerned with doing the impossible. He has a halo screwed into his skull for six months. Any untoward movement could sever his spinal cord. He begins training again, in secret, with Rooney in his parents basement. He has his halo removed without anaesthetic (Vinny didn't drink or take drugs) and Teller sells the agony.
Boxers are always surrounded by enablers, worriers and exploiters and Younger's filled these roles colorfully. Hinds is all Rhode Island Italian with a leonine head of hair and broad accent, his son's biggest champion. Sagal is the mother who cannot watch her son getting hurt, peeping out from her alcove as others watch his bouts. But Angelo suffers tremendous guilt after his son's car accident, refusing to sit in his corner during his comeback fight while Louise sneaks a peak for the first time as the cheering grows in her living room. Lou Duva, played by a Levine more unrecognizable than Eckhart, clearly wants Vinny off his books, booking that comeback expecting him to go down. 'We'll make money either way.' Eckhart, sporting a bald pate, slumps and shuffles and shimmies as Vinny's enabler, the actor painting Rooney a believer tinged with his own comeback hopes. But this is Teller's film. With his 80's aviators and feathery porn 'stache, Vinny's talent is the only thing separating him from his environment. Teller gives an incredibly physical performance, believable in the ring, awkwardly stationary throughout the movie's midsection, his eyes always on the prize (when asked how he feels, he invariably replies 'like I should be on a Wheaties box.')
"Bleed for This" doesn't break any new ground in the boxing genre, but Younger's choices from casting to production are as good as it gets. Boxing scenes alternate from action to obscured action highlighting character. The film's soundtrack is a knockout, none of the choices obvious, but all atmospheric (Julia Holter's original music is less memorable).
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