Bleed for This
Directed by: Ben Younger
Written by: Ben Younger and Pippa Bianco and Angelo Pizzo.
Starring: Miles Teller (Vinny Paz), Aaron Eckhart (Kevin Rooney), Ciarán Hinds (Angelo Pazienza), Katey Sagal (Louise Pazienza), Christine Evangelista (Louise), Amanda Clayton (Doreen Pazienza), Ted Levine (Lou Duva), Gene Amoroso (Anthony), Daniel Sauli (Jon), Tina Casciani (Heather).
The true life story that inspired Bleed for This seems so tailor made for an inspirational, Hollywood boxing movie that you almost cannot believe it’s taken them more than 20 years to make it. It tells the story of Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller), a talented welterweight boxer that doesn’t take his career seriously enough to become the great boxer he can be. He had a title shot, and then stayed out late the night before gambling, and lost, big-time. His manager tells he should retire – but Vinny, and his father Angelo (Ciaran Hinds) aren’t ready for that yet. It’s Angelo who hires Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart) – one of Mike Tyson’s trainers, down on his luck due to his alcoholism, to train Vinny. He decides to move Vinny up not one weight class, but two. No one moves up two weight classes – but Vinny does. And not only does he do it, he wins. He finally has the championship belt he always wanted – than a brutal car accident nearly ends Vinny’s life, and should well have ended his career. But Vinny is determined.
Bleed for This should therefore be a wonderful feel good story. Yes, what happens in the film is entirely predictable – and yet, because it’s based on a true story, you have to except that and move on. Yet, for some reason, Bleed for This never really comes together to be anything more than an average film. Co-writer/director Ben Younger seems to want to go with a more realistic look and feel to the movie than the average inspirational movie – and admittedly, that does produce some of the films better moments. But it also undercuts some of the drama, making what should be big moments feel fairly small. The screenplay doesn’t help very much, because characters and their motivations seem hazy, and one note. Then, rapidly, characters change their mind – but somehow remind one note. Many of the cast members do fine work, but aren’t given the material to do truly great work. The final scene of the film is one of the most bizarre and puzzling missteps I can recall in a movie this year.
Unfortunately for the movie, it’s Teller himself who delivers the films weakest performance. You can tell the commitment he has to the role – putting on muscle, and first slimming down and being wiry for the opening scenes, then bulking up a little for the later ones. He wants to nail the Rhode Island accent that Vinny Paz has, and does a decent job (although, since I’m now listening to the true crime podcast Crimetown, about Rhode Island, you can tell he doesn’t quite nail it – the rest of the cast does). Teller pores everything into Vinny’s determination to recover and fight again – so much so, that there really are not any other notes for him to play. You are left with a question as to why he didn’t seem overly committed before the accident – that guy who stayed up late gambling isn’t the same guy who was so fiercely determined to come back – but there’s some work missing to explain why. Aaron Eckhart is much better as Kevin – fat and balder than Eckhart is normally, he disappears into this character that in many ways is a walking, talking clichéd – the grizzled boxer training with one last shot at glory. But again, there seems to be some character work missing – as he bobs into and out of alcoholism when it’s convenient to the plot. Ciarian Hinds, and Vinny’s father, is good in the background and as the larger than life Italian stereo-type – but his late change of heart (and perhaps, change back, it’s never made clear) doesn’t make much sense. The best performance in the movie may well be Katy Sagal’s as Vinny’s mother – she’s the only person who seems to do the rational thing throughout.
What does work about Bleed for This is mainly in the background – the art direction, which pays attention to the way the houses of these characters look – as well as the boxing gyms and back alleys. This is a movie where all the locations feel lived in and real. The boxing scenes feel less pumped up than normal – less dramatic, and more down-to-earth, which I both appreciated, and thought made the film perhaps too subdued. Younger is the talented director behind Boiler Room (2000) – although with just two films in the 16 years since (2005’s Prime and now this) – neither of which are anywhere near as good as that one, you wonder if he will ever fulfill that early promise.
The film, I think, also drops the ball on something very important – that what Vinny did, no matter what the result, was incredibly dangerous and incredibly stupid. He easily could have died or paralyzed himself doing what he does – and most people who had the condition he had will never get any better, no matter how hard they try. The film could have at least acknowledged this, instead of simply perpetuating this idiotic machismo than movies romanticize – as if something only worth doing if it could kill you – and doing so, makes you a real man. The final scene of the movie underlines this point in such a ham-fisted and startling way I was taken aback. Bleed for This is movie that doesn’t really work, and worse, has a fairly stupid message.