REAL LIFE DRAMA ZEROES IN ON A PERSONAL BATTLE AGAINST ADVERSITY
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: Miles Teller as Vinny Pazienza in ‘Bleed for This’ Rating: R; Grade: B
Men and women who step in the ring go by a variety of monikers—boxers, brawlers, fighters, sluggers, punchers—and yet the stories about them, the big feature narratives, tend to look and sound the same. The fight game, as seen in the movies, follows a familiar arc. Down on their luck, palookas enter the ring with a single shot at glory and a big purse, leave their hearts (and their blood, sweat, and tears) on the mat, beating the odds and the expectations. Each and every one could raise their gloves triumphantly to strains of the Elton John hit from back in the day, “I’m Still Standing,” whether they claim whatever title was supposed to be on the line or not.
I have to say, I was decidedly punch drunk after sitting through “Hands of Stone,” just prior to the Toronto International Film Festival, a screening of Liev Schreiber’s “The Bleeder” (which told the tale of the fighter who inspired Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky”), during the fest, and a few days before that, taking in Ben Younger’s comeback, “Bleed for This.” I could trace the early stages of this pugilistic pummeling back to last year’s “Southpaw,” featuring Jake Gyllenhaal as a great white hope (both in the ring and anticipated in the awards season punch fest) and Ryan Coogler’s rousing crowd-pleasing “Rocky” spinoff, “Creed.”
But “Bleed for This” stripped away a great deal of the routine fight strategy for something a bit more elemental. Its hero, Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller) starts off the film as a winner, having brawled his way to a championship, in his inimitable style. Pazienza takes a beating like nobody. He’s not necessarily doing it based on a game plan to wear out his opponent, waiting for his moment to strike; he’s just hard-headed without a lick of quit in him, so he keeps charging forward, cutting off the ring, boxing his opponent into a corner where he has no choice but to punch it out with him. And, generally speaking, the two go at it until somebody drops.
We see Paz win and do exactly what a brash Jersey boy would do—prepare to race off to enjoy the spoils of victory. But fate knocks him down with swift and brutal efficiency. A car accident leaves Paz with a spinal injury so severe he’s not expected to walk again.
What should have been the final knockout blow leads to a standing eight-count for Paz. He gets a spinal halo screwed into his head and is ushered home by his family—with Katey Sagal as his mother and Ciarán Hinds as his father—where everyone in the big boisterous clan simply watches for the inevitable surrender. Paz wallows in the booze for a time and wanders into despondency before deciding to get up off the mat for a dangerous comeback. Despite knowing that one false move could render him permanently paralyzed, Paz sets his sights on not just walking, but stepping into the ring again, with his obviously reluctant trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart) in tow.
Paz’s story isn’t simply about a rematch or a second chance at glory. This is life or death, and Younger (last behind the camera on the 2005 release “Prime” following his bruising feature debut “Boiler Room” back in 2000) could easily be using Paz as a stand-in for his own career. However, he goes about his business seemingly without great and meaningful expectations at all beyond the unwavering focus on Paz.
And Teller brings it to life as if every emotion matters in every moment. From the bottomless arrogance of a champion on the rise to the depressive depths of life without the prospect of fighting again, Teller sweats and bleeds every reaction, glistening and bowed, but never breaking under the strain.
“Bleed for This” returns Paz to the ring, and it is in this moment that the film reveals the hairline fissures in its bravado façade. During what should have been its most tense moments, it feels flat-footed and oddly static. Not necessarily because we might know the outcome, but because there is a lack of threat or genuine fear for Paz’s safety. The real fight—to get to the point of entering the ring—is over, and, for all intents and purposes, so is the film. Maybe Younger would have been better off ending with Paz climbing into the ring. The rest is, sadly, anticlimactic.