'Bleed for This': Telluride Review

A rough, tough, somewhat familiar boxing drama.
11/4/2016

Miles Teller stars as Vinny Pazienza in a biopic about the boxer's dramatic comeback following a serious car accident.

Bleed for This is a gritty, pungently Rhode Island working class-set boxing drama that connects with most of its punches. Based on the colorful life of pugnacious fighter Vinny Pazienza, a champion in three different weight categories who dramatically defied doctors and the odds when he returned to the ring after breaking his neck in a car accident, this welcome return by Boiler Room writer-director Ben Younger can’t help but hit some familiar boxing picture notes but still rates as a vibrant addition to the genre. After film festival rounds, this Open Road release should reap moderate-to-good box-office returns.

Younger looked like a definite talent to watch on the basis of his writing and directing debut with the pressure-cooker financial drama Boiler Room in 2000. But he’s only been heard from since cinematically with the lackluster romantic comedy Prime in 2005, so it’s good to see him back in the arena with some colorful characters and a potent story, even if a number of the elements are far from original. 

Not exactly a household name even though he defeated Roberto Duran twice and held championship belts in three different weight categories, Vinny Pazienza (later Vinny Paz) was nonetheless a classic boxing-world character, a Guido-type from a wiseguy Providence hood who rose from the local scene to “be somebody.”

The first we see of him, however, he’s at his worst, barely able to make weight for a lightweight championship bout against Roger Mayweather, gambling and carousing with his good-times girlfriend at a casino the night before the fight and getting a bloody whupping in the ring as a consequence.

It’s so bad that his trainer Lou Duva (Ted Levine, wonderfully sleazy) tells Vinny that he should hang up his gloves, and Younger injects some great low humor into a scene in which the fighter’s goodfella-type handlers sit around discussing the kid’s future while sitting in children’s furniture at one of their homes.

But Vinny’s determined to carry on and engages an alcoholic trainer that Mike Tyson has recently fired, Kevin Rooney (a bald and bellied Aaron Eckhart, as you’ve never seen him before). Observing that they’re “both out to pasture,” Rooney suggests that the kid move up in weight class, even by two categories to 154 pounds. The ploy works, Vinny starts winning again and everything’s looking up until a car he’s riding in is rammed by another vehicle on a highway.

Lucky to be alive, Vinny begins a long recuperation that involves the installation of a “halo” around his head, a metal brace featuring screws that bore down into his skull; this will at least guarantee that he’ll walk again. Vinny is hardly a model patient and, at the film’s halfway point, Rooney lays it out for his charge: “It’s over. You gotta let it go.”

If anything, this motivates the wild kid to prove the older man wrong. Even with the brace still on, Vinny starts working out again, lifting weights, refusing anesthetics when the screws are excruciatingly removed and, with Rooney back on board, taking up serious training again in the basement. Dramatically, this is downtime, a lull in the action while the film, like its lead character, slowly gathers its strength for the final third-act push which sees Vinny, however improbably, at 165 pounds, returning to Las Vegas for a shot at Duran’s super-middleweight championship belt.

With executive producer Martin Scorsese figuratively looking over his shoulder, Younger injects the action with as much visual and performance juice as he can muster, stirring interest in a crude, emotionally imprudent and severely flawed man (much as Scorsese often has) and serving up a thick slice of specific ethnic family ways in the bargain — in this case Rhode Island working-class Catholics the likes of which haven’t been much seen onscreen since David O. Russell’s The Fighter six years ago.

One of the film’s disarming surprises is hearing these heavily accented voices coming out of actors who have never been associated with such characters, particularly Eckhart and Ciaran Hinds, the latter playing Vinny’s imposing, unpredictable father. More often seen as well-turned-out, presentable gents, Eckhart lets caution to the wind and digs down to find dramatic potential he’s never mined before and thereby socking over his portrayal of a morally fluctuating guy with many foibles who still provides Vinny with the tactical guidance he needs to put his opponents on the canvas.

The imposing Hinds has no trouble at first establishing the old man’s domineering pater familias profile but continues to add shadings of intuition and understanding in regard to his son. Katey Sagal effectively cuts a weird contrasting figure as a devoutly, nay, compulsively religious mother so rattled by her son’s occupation that she remains in her prayer room while everyone else watches Vinny’s bouts on the tube.

As maniacally as he took drum playing to the limit in Whiplash, Teller fights 'til he wins or drops here. His intensity and determination levels are extreme, his proclivity for reckless, unthinking behavior just a bit less so, and the actor cuts a convincing boxer’s figure in the many scenes of training and combat. Whether there are more levels to this guy, however, whether he has any perspectives other than to persevere and win, remains uncertain.

All production values, notably Larkin Seiple’s vigorous camerawork and Kay Lee’s evocatively banal production design, contribute to soaking the viewer in a convincingly moldy, sweaty, tawdry environment. Dramatically, the story as told here reshapes events and ignores referencing many other bouts, including what happened after the film’s climax.

Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Distributor: Open Road Films
Production companies: Magna Entertainment, Sikelia Productions, Verdi
Productions, Bruce Cohen Productions, Younger Than You Productions, Solution Entertainment Group
Cast: Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Katey Sagal, Ciaran Hinds, Ted Levine, Christine Evangelista
Director: Ben Younger
Screenwriter: Ben Younger, story by Ben Younger, Pippa Bianco, Angelo Pizzo
Producers: Bruce Cohen, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Chad A. Verdi, Noah Kraft
Executive producers: Martin Scorsese, Joshua Sason, Michelle Verdi, Myles Nestel, Lisa Wilson
Director of photography: Larkin Seiple
Production designer: Kay Lee
Costume designer: Melissa Vargas
Editor: Zac Stuart-Pontier
Music: Julia Holter
Casting: Kerry Bardem, Paul Schnee

Rated R, 116 minutes

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