Sunday, November 20, 2016

'Bleed for This' review

Did we really need another boxing movie? No, not at all. In recent years, a whole range of inspirational fighter dramas have hit theaters with various degrees of success. Creed is still a near-masterpiece, The Fighter was a strong family drama and Oscar favorite, but Antoine Fuqua's Southpaw missed by a mile. Ben Younger's Bleed for This, which tells the true comeback story of Vinny "The Pazmanian Devil" Pazienza (Miles Teller), falls comfortably in the middle. It's hard to screw up the boxing formula, and Younger doesn't make any specific missteps or attempt to reinvent the wheel in any way. His film is competent and mostly entertaining, a well-acted drama that manages to be pretty watchable. Unfortunately, Bleed for This never manages to fully justify its own existence as another boxing movie, sticking to genre conventions through thick and thin. It isn't particularly inspirational or nuanced, instead settling for a sense of authenticity that carries the movie through some dull patches. It's all decent enough, especially with the dynamic and charismatic performances from Miles Teller and Aaron Eckhart. But it's tough to shake the feeling that this could have been more than just another boxing movie, that Younger could have elevated this to fascinating, harrowing territory. Instead, it's just a solid, passable film, another mildly formulaic entry in a genre that has seen its fair share of ups and downs.

After suffering a broken neck, Vinny Pazienza managed to stage one of the most miraculous comebacks in sports history, fighting iconic fighter Roberto Duran after a lengthy, brutal recovery. How did this happen? Bleed for This seeks to find that answer, taking us back to the start of Pazman's story. After a humiliating loss to Roger Mayweather, Vinny decides that it's time to shake things up a bit. Facing pressure from his father (Ciaran Hinds) and his promoters, Vinny turns to Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), an iconic trainer who led Mike Tyson to glory for several years. Rooney advises Vinny to move up from lightweight to middleweight, a major jump that could be seen as a huge risk in the boxing world. However, as Vinny and Kev grow closer and bond together, the risk pays off. During his first middleweight title fight, Vinny emerges as the champion of the world once again, proving himself as a disciplined, talented fighter.

Everything is going swimmingly for Vinny, until one day, he's in a vicious car accident. The crash leaves him with a fractured neck, an injury that could potentially threaten his life and his career. The doctors tell him that he won't be able to fight again, and that if he doesn't undergo a spinal fusion surgery, there's a chance that he won't ever be able to walk again either. Stubborn and committed to his dream of fighting in the ring once more, Vinny instead opts for Halo surgery, a procedure that relies solely on his body to heal naturally. The Halo contraption is grisly and awkward, involving multiple screws in his head, while one bump could cause him excruciating pain and sever his spinal cord. With an injury so serious, most people would take their time to heal, avoiding any risky activities that could potentially threaten their life. Not Vinny. He sees a physical handicap as a death sentence, and he refuses to believe that he won't fight again. Instead, he embraces the pain, training with Rooney and building his body into peak physical condition. It all builds up to the title fight against Duran, where Vinny will put his body on the line for one more chance at glory.

Vinny Paz's outlook on life is positioned as being rather simple, and the movie reflects that at pretty much every turn. The final scene of Bleed for This details his philosophy, which is literally "it's that simple." Even if somebody tells you that it's impossible, you can still do it. Why? Well, because. You just can. This philosophy trickles over to the film itself, which is mostly free of complexity or true character depth. It sticks very closely to the tried-and-true formula, and it is workmanlike, blunt, and rock solid. There's no real attempt to understand why Vinny embraced pain so much, or why he saw his only opportunity in life in a boxing ring. This was a guy who defied everybody's recommendations and expectations, who made decisions that could have seriously harmed him and pushed himself beyond any reasonable standard. Bleed for This merely documents the action, constantly balancing the idea of "Isn't this guy crazy?" with "Wow, isn't this inspiring?" at nearly every turn. Younger never takes a side, which benefits the docudrama style, but hurts the film as a character study.

Miles Teller is a brash, method performer, an actor willing to throw his all into the right role. His ferocity and energy was at its highest point in 2014's Whiplash, the music indie that broke out in a big way and became a modern classic. Teller throws his all into the physical aspects of Pazienza, bulking up and accurately portraying the pain that Paz put himself through at every turn. He nails the coastal accent, and carries himself with a swagger that is fitting for such a larger-than-life character. He's less effective at helping the audience understand why the hell Vinny went to such extremes, putting himself through total torment just to fight once again. I know that the film positions boxing as the most fulfilling thing, maybe the only thing in Vinny's life, but I just struggle to believe that. His story was not conventional, and this movie is. Most of the blame there goes to Younger's script, so I don't think Teller deserves much of the blame. He gives a sturdy, strong performance. Aaron Eckhart is the standout of the supporting cast, gaining a pretty hefty amount of weight and fully changing his accent to play Kevin Rooney. In a weak year for supporting actor, Eckhart might be this film's best chance at Oscar glory.

Younger's direction is gritty and realistic, which gives the film a unique taste of its own. The somewhat frenetic style feels clearly like an imitation of David O. Russell's The Fighter, making it less original but no less satisfying. Younger previously directed Boiler Room and Prime, and at one point, I had hoped that Bleed for This would be a big breakout for him. Of course, this was back when the film was being sold as the boxing movie since Raging Bull, which is pretty far from the truth. Now, this will merely represent another moderate step forward for a filmmaker who hasn't gained much traction throughout his career. And as rock solid as the craftsmanship is in Bleed for This, there isn't much in the film that feels exceptional. Even the boxing scenes fail to feel all that rousing or engaging. Like everything else, they're well done, but they don't have that power, that "oomph" necessary to turn an okay boxing movie into a great one. Younger's screenplay is often even more problematic, feeling mostly like a recap of Vinny's life rather than a focused, precise study of specific moments in his life. It almost feels like two movies shoved into one at some points. Younger has a great eye for crisp dialogue and directorial energy, but he never quite hits the mark with this film.

But don't get me wrong, Bleed for This is still a fine enough film if you go in knowing what to expect. Fans of Miles Teller will have a good time, fans of boxing movies will enjoy themselves, and even some cinephiles will view the film as passable. There are no egregious transgressions nor any outstanding achievements- it's just a decent, mildly entertaining movie. Nothing less, nothing more. With my early expectations for Bleed for This, it has to be viewed as something of a disappointment. There was a time where I thought this movie had the potential to be something great, a film that would transcend genre cliches and deliver something truly unique. Instead, it's just a fairly standard boxing movie with some shaky storytelling and a lack of true introspection. I wanted more from Bleed for This, but in the end, I was moderately engaged by its authentic, visceral story of a truly crazy figure in the boxing world. It's no boxing classic, but it gets the job done.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.7/10)

Images courtesy of Open Road Films

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