In the four decades since cinema’s Italian Stallion hung up the gloves, Hollywood has struggled to fill the void of a post-Rocky Balboa world. Like the B-level fluff that followed, “Bleed for This” has a hell of a tale to tell with nothing but empty locker room banter to flesh out a yawn of a film.
Based on the true story of former lightweight boxer champion Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller), “Bleed for This” tells the tale of how he refused to retire from the sport after suffering a near-fatal spinal injury from a serious car accident with his trainer, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckart). While doctors were unsure if he would ever walk again, Pazienza was determined not just to get back on his feet, but to get back into the ring and do what he did best — fight.
“Bleed for This” boasts nothing short of an inspired cast, which includes Katey Sagal, Ciarán Hinds, and Ted Levine among its ranks. But for all its charms, the film is little more than a hamstrung “get well” card full of plot-driving tropes. The rise, the fall, the montage, the win — “Bleed for This” has all four without giving a second thought to the person present in each of them.
Teller and Eckhart put in their best effort. Teller gives his most unconventional performance to date, transforming himself into the semi-charming, foul-mouthed narcissist Pazienza. Eckart similarly gives it his all as Rooney, sporting a paunch, a receding hairline, and a convincing New York accent. While the fight choreography in “Bleed for This” is perfunctory at best and flat at worst, Eckhart and Teller nonetheless do a nice job selling the relationship between Pazienza and Rooney. In the process, they help the audience buy what little the film has to offer emotionally.
The best boxing stories are the ones that take place outside of the ring, but “Bleed for This” is the story of a man who got back on his feet to fight for a title belt and little else. Pazienza himself is a raging narcissist with zero empathy and the majority of his relationships are never shown beyond the context of his own terrible circumstances.
Much like Teller and Eckhart, director Ben Younger tries his hardest, which is seen in a few of his more stylistic decisions — from the silent, intimate portraits he tries to paint of the characters he portrays to several riveting moments during Pazienza’s final match. An incredibly revealing scene late into the film’s second act offers us a gut-wrenching look at Pazienza’s sheer force of will, but the film never offers a riveting illustration of Pazienza’s suffering beyond hitting his head on car roofs and his likelihood of getting a blowjob from his girlfriend.
Younger still relies heavily on the same tired motifs of past boxing dramas. We get our training montages, set to strains of AC/DC and Billy Squier. We get our gritted teeth and raised fists. We get our inevitable third-act finale, although Pazienza is without the warm embrace of a romantic interest. Many of them could be timed with a stopwatch and arrive at the same conclusion every sports movie has told us 100 times already: Don’t give up.
Boxing takes far more than brute force; It also takes strategy and unpredictability. The same can be said of filmmaking. You can have great talent, which the boxing drama “Bleed for This” has in the form of its first-rate cast. As Younger proves though, if you follow the formula to the letter, all that talent will be wasted.
For all the bravado of its namesake, “Bleed for This” delivers a predictable, by-the-numbers one-two punch. It’s hard not to think that “Bleed for This” really could have been, and should have been, much better. There’s no denying that Pazienza’s comeback is a remarkable story in itself, but like Pazienza’s final words relate, boxing films shouldn’t be this simple anymore.
The verdict: If you wished that “Creed” was all about white male privilege and half as good, “Bleed for This” is your kind of movie.
Reach writer Tim Gruver at email@example.com. Twitter: @T_TimeForce