A century of “fight pictures” means that there’s really nothing new, visually, that filmmakers can show us in the ring. So “Bleed for This” director Ben Younger concentrated, instead, on sound.
He deafens us with the tinnitus of a knock-out, alarms us with the silence brought on by other blows and blasts us with the roar of the crowd and the loud music fighters often train by to keep their focus when they’re in the ring and facing bedlam.
This latest film from the guy who gave us “Boiler Room” is a true story and the funniest boxing picture this side of “Rocky.” That’s because the subject of the film, Rhode Island’s Vinny Pazienza, is a genuine character. And Miles “Whiplash” Teller makes us laugh at his bravado even as we feel his pain.
We get a load of the guy’s impulsiveness on weigh-in day. He’s late for a Vegas fight press conference because he’s encased himself in Saran Wrap, pedaling frantically on an Exercycle. Vinny, who loves to eat, is desperate to make weight.
No sooner has he won that first “victory” — making his super lightweight limit of 140 pounds — than he is off, eating and gambling the night away — the night before the fight, which he promptly loses.
When Vinny loses, his extended-family of women (Katey Sagal plays the mother who can’t watch his fights) ache and quake for him, his brash and profane trainer-dad (Ciaran Hinds) grimaces. And Vinny, inevitably, winds up in the hospital.
That’s why Lou, his manager (Ted Levine) all but announces his retirement, post-fight. But Vinny, who has a passion for fighting and a working-class family to prop up with his cash, won’t hear of it. That’s why Dad sends former Mike Tyson trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), an alcoholic just as desperate for redemption as Vinny.
But Vinny’s moment of triumph, a title fight in Providence, is short-lived. A car wreck (on his way to a casino) almost kills him and breaks his neck. He shouldn’t ever fight again, and this time, even his enabling Dad agrees.
Do you smell a “long shot comeback?” Because I do.
Teller, lean and mustachioed, brings a lightness to Vinny that makes his “all-in, all the time” self-destructive side lovable. The anesthesiologist puts him under before his neck surgery and asks, “I want you to count backwards from ten, Vinny.”
Too complicated for the kid.
“Didn’t they tellya? I’m a BOXER!”
Eckhart makes his best foil.
“You smell like liquor!”
“You smell like RHODE ISLAND!”
This is Eckhart’s most immersive performance, and yes, I saw his take on “Frankenstein.” Rooney is a balding, stoop-shouldered ruin of a man. He still has his Porsche and his pride, but not much else. Like Vinny, he’s been “put out to pasture.”
Rooney gets the film’s best boxing picture aphorisms. He tries to teach the “Paz-manian Devil” “the difference between a risk, and a gamble.”
Vinny’s all about how tough he is, which is why he’s brawled his way into the hospital so many times.
“Some hits,” Rooney growls, “you aren’t being ‘tough’ by taking.”
The fight scenes are expertly handled, as engrossing and immediate as any in the movies.
But the film so limits its scope that relationships — Vinny’s serial romances, his big family – — and characters are shortchanged. Levine makes a hateful impression as an aged vulture of a manager, but Sagal has too few moments to register.
Younger plays up the ethnic stereotypes — walls covered in crucifixes and prints of the Virgin Mary, every meal packed with loud, gesturing Italians eating pasta.
An unfortunate aesthetic touch is the film’s use of actual news footage of Pazienza back in the day. We can see the real fighter, who looks nothing like Miles Teller, in sportscasts, fight telecasts, and even in a poster in his father’s gym where Vinny trains. I know the film doesn’t have the budget of “Creed,” but come on.
There’s not much new in the fight game, as far as the movies are concerned. With Mixed Martial Arts stealing its thunder, every boxing picture feels like a relic, like “The Fighter” — a period piece.
But Teller, who takes us from grins to grimaces with skill, and Eckhart, given his best role in years and his most likable performance ever, make “Bleed for This” worth the blood and the pain.
MPAA Rating:R for language, sexuality/nudity and some accident images
Cast: Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Ciaran Hinds, Ted Levine, Katey Sagal
Credits:Directed by Ben Younger, script by Pippa Bianco, Angelo Pizzo and Ben Younger. An Open Road release.
Running time: 1:56