Movie Review: Chuck Wepner, “The Brawler,” was the boxer who inspired “Rocky”

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It’s not a backhanded compliment to say Zach McGowan of “Black Sails,” “The Walking Dead” and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is entirely too good-looking to play the boxer Chuck Wepner.

He doesn’t look like a mug, no hint of the beaten up and beaten down about him. There’s little that’s hulking about McGowan and his face hasn’t taken the punches Wepner’s did long before he became famous.

It’s a pity McGowan didn’t get a haircut and a hair-thinning, to at least make the effort to look like the working class inspiration for the “Rocky” movies in “The Brawler.” That’s kind of emblematic of McGowan’s take on boxing’s most famous loser, a guy who couldn’t win in the ring, and did his damnedest to lose out of it, too.

“The Brawler” is a poor excuse for a boxing picture and a middling screen biography, but it does manage a few saving graces.

Once we get past the boxing scenes — which are ineptly-staged, fought, photographed and edited — and stop rolling our eyes at the quick, superficial glances at Wepner’s out-of-the-ring life, and we learn to tune out the incessant voice-over narration (lazy filmmaking defined), we can limit our focus to a few good performances and some TV movie-level third act surprises that generally lift the picture out of the hole it digs itself into in its first hour.

Wepner was the unlikely bruiser, a 30something onetime Golden Gloves champ, an ex-Marine and “Great White Hope” who clawed his way into boxing’s top ten in the mid-70s despite taking several epic, bloody beatings along the way. In 1975, Mohammed Ali, almost as a joke but with an eye on the racial component of a fight that could make him even richer, picked Wepner as his next title challenger.

Wepner, like Rocky Balboa, the movie boxer inspired by him, didn’t win. But he hung tough, took his blows and delivered a few to the most popular heavyweight champion of his era.

“I never been knocked out. I’ve been cut. Never knocked out.”

Cue “Gonna fly now” if you want, because Sly Stallone (character actor Anthony Mangano, not bad) certainly did.

He’d done “collecting” for a mobster, and liquor deliveries. Wepner, “the toughest kid in Bayonne,” hung with a rough crowd — people who’d stuff guys, living or dead, into the trunks of cars or into the dryer at a local laundromat.

The Italian Stallion took the New Jersey Polish brawler unflatteringly nicknamed “The Bayonne Bleeder” and made him lovable, romantic, a mug with a soft side.

Wepner’s soft side was the women in his life. He was a married father of two who didn’t earn enough in the ring, “the only place in the world that made sense to me,” to train full-time.

“Why do you do it? You never win,” wife Phyllis (Taryn Manning of “Orange is the New Black,” a good choice) gripes after every loss.

But there’s love here, the nobility of struggle. It’s just that Chuck never listens to his trainer (Joe Pantoliano, perfect) who spends his entire time in his corner, trying to get him to learn defense. “Salute,” Braverman says, demonstrating. “Throw a punch, then bring the hand BACK” to protect your head — like a salute.

Wepner gets a fight with former champ and monstrous brawler Sonny Liston and bleeds all over the ring. One and all mutter in fear in revulsion at this.

“I hope his wife ain’t watchin’ this.”

Chuck, CHUCK! “How many fingers?”

“How many guesses do I get?”

He survived Liston and stuck around long enough to come into promoter Don King’s field of view, and Ali’s.

“The Brawler” gives us a passable Ali (Jerrod Paige, who also played Ali in a cameo in “American Gangster”), a rhyming, bantering charisma machine.

“You. Are. In. Trouble.”

We’re treated to a half-decent Howard Cosell (Jay Willick) and a dreadful Don King (He was more than just a wild haircut, folks.). The run-up to their fight gets more attention (a famous joint appearance on “The Mike Douglas Show”) than the fight itself, which is a blessing. As I said, the boxing stuff that veteran producer and director Ken Kushner stages here is almost laughably bad.

A stand-out moment, the famous “knock-down” in that fight. Wepner, crows to his trainer from a neutral corner as the count is administered to Ali, “Start the car, Al. We’re gonna be rich!”

The first hint of this “Stalloney Baloney” fellow turn up shortly thereafter. But “The Brawler quickly settles down to the rough and tumble “celebrity” life that followed for Wepner — rooting for “Rocky” at the Oscars, fighting wrestler Andre the Giant, brawling with a bear, cocaine and discos, screaming fights with the missus, who leaves, easy money that turns out to be not so easy and puts him in prison.

Through it all, McGowan’s Wepner keeps narrating — about his second wife (the luminous spitfire Amy Smart) “Linda. I swear she was sent from heaven.”

Time and again, people wonder if Wepner is “nervous” at this or that spotlight.

“You think I’m nervous? I get punched in the face for a living.”

That aptly sums up the man, who was probably never going to get a big-budget star vehicle movie about his life — a made for ESPN or Netflix drama, maybe.

But even a mug like Wepner deserved a more polished picture than this. Casting Burt Young may help your “The Real Rocky” bonafides, but there’s little else that suggests effort and expense that shows up on screen.

Granted, TV talk shows sets from the ’70s were notoriously cheesy, but the fake “Mike Douglas” one here looks like it was conceived and built by high schoolers who never consulted Youtube to see what the real thing looked like (a rights issue might partly explain that).

As for McGowan, if you can’t bear to cut your hair between TV seasons, if you’re too busy to train with a boxer for several weeks or more to make yourself pass for one in the ring, there’s nothing keeping you from just saying “No.”  Which might have been the smarter move here.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, profanity

Cast: Zach McGowan, Taryn Manning, Amy Smart, Joe Pantoliano, Burt Young

Credits:  script by Robert DiBella and Ken Kushner. A Vertical release.

Running time: 1:35

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