Ron Swanson rolls with the punches
Bleed for This is the second high-profile American boxing movie to hit UK cinemas in 2016. Ben Younger’s film (his first since Prime in 2005) is an effective crowd-pleaser, which has a truly remarkable (and remarkably mostly true) story at its centre, but still can’t quite escape the shadow of Ryan Coogler’s electric, visceral masterpiece Creed.
The story here is that of the boxing career of Vinny Pazienza, who later changed his name to Vinny Paz. Pazienza won world titles in three different weight classes, which is impressive, but not entirely uncommon. What makes Pazienza’s achievements more notable is that his first world title came in the lightweight division (9 stone, 9lbs) and his second in the junior middleweight division (11 stone, vaulting two weight classes entirely). He became only the second man in history to win world titles at those two weights.
After winning his second world title, Pazienza was involved in a terrible car crash, which he was lucky to survive, escaping with a broken neck that threatened his chances of walking again, and would surely end his boxing career. Finding that hard to take, Pazienza refused a surgery that would consign him to that fate, and decided to undergo a treatment called a ‘Halo’, which featured a metal collar that had to be screwed into his skull in four places. He would wear the halo for three months, and returned to the ring just thirteen months after his surgery, eventually fighting for, and winning, a third world title, this time in the 12 stone Super Middleweight division.
Boxing is a sport which values its stories. Any boxing fan has multiple stories about the fights they’ve seen, the fighters they’ve loved and the battles they wish they could forget. Pazienza’s story, inside the ring at least is one of the richest in the sport’s history, and Younger’s film has almost done it proud.
Miles Teller is in good form as Pazienza, balancing the fighter’s cockiness with his need to be accepted and loved and giving another strong performance. He’s ably supported by Aaron Eckhardt as his trainer. The two have real chemistry and the film is at its strongest when it frames Pazienza’s struggles inside the impact it’s having on his family and friends.
There’s no mention of Pazienza’s multiple legal issues, including charges of domestic assault, which is a real shame. Alongside a slightly regressive treatment of the women in Pazienza’s life, it’s a fairly significant mistake to omit that side of his character. Equally surprising is the need to Hollywood-ise some of Pazienza’s journey. He moves from the crash to the world title shot in the space of one fight in the film. This story, more than almost any other, needed no embellishment, and doing so only trivialises the size and scale of his achievements.
Perhaps Bleed for This’s only other real flaw is the sense of familiarity. It’s not just Creed that casts a long shadow, Bleed for This is highly reminiscent of David O. Russell’s outstanding The Fighter, from its blue collar, New England setting, to its working class hero and close family dynamics. If those weren’t enough, it’s hard not to compare Teller’s performance to Jake Gyllenhaal’s hauntingly brilliant turn in Southpaw. While Teller’s work is impressive, Gyllenhaal’s pretty much single-handedly carried Antoine Fuqua’s film on his back, providing real pathos and depth to a flawed and, potentially, thin character.
Those slight quibbles aside, there’s still enough here for me to be able to recommend Bleed for This, especially to those who love the sport, or the films that have done such a great job of depicting it on the big-screen recently.
Bleed for This goes on general release on Friday.