It’s hard to imagine why anyone felt that boxer Chuck Wepner deserved yet another big screen biopic. The story of “The Bayonne Bleeder,” who served as the inspiration for the film Rocky, was told pretty well in 2016’s Chuck, featuring an impressive cast including Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts and Elisabeth Moss. And yet now arrives writer-director Ken Kushner’s The Brawler, a thoroughly mediocre retelling that feels like an unnecessary footnote.
Zack McGowan (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Black Sails) plays the central role of Wepner, who is apparently quite a chatterbox, if the film is accurate. He narrates the proceedings incessantly in a gravelly, heavily New Jersey-accented voice, spouting one cliché after another. “I was the toughest kid in Bayonne,” he solemnly informs us during a montage of mobster-related violent scenes that feel like a film student’s homage to Goodfellas.
Wepner got his big break when he landed a 1975 title shot against Muhammad Ali and managed to knock the champ down. He didn’t win the bout, but he famously went the distance and achieved instant fame. Or, as he puts it here, “I wasn’t a nobody now. I was a somebody.” You half expect him to launch into a monologue from On the Waterfront, like Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.
His newfound celebrity, especially after Sylvester Stallone credited him for inspiring the character of Rocky, went to Wepner’s head. He lost himself in drugs and sex, losing his wife (an effective Taryn Manning) in the process. His fighting career hit the skids, and he was reduced to such publicity stunts as wrestling a bear and fighting Andre the Giant. Regarding the latter humiliation, he tells us (in one of the film’s few, possibly intentionally funny lines), “You don’t know the true meaning of rock bottom until you let an overweight European pick you up like a baby and throw you to the ground.”
By this point, any remaining viewers may have their own definition of hitting rock bottom, but the desultory tale continues. Wepner’s wife leaves him, he has a falling out with his brother and he completely blows an audition to play a role written especially for him in Rocky II. He also lands in prison on a drugs and gun possession charge. “Prison beat me up more than any fighter ever could have,” he laments. And then, in true boxing movie tradition, he’s saved by the love of a good woman (Amy Smart). “Linda, I swear she was sent from heaven,” he gushes, although even her patience is tested when he’s arrested for his involvement in a counterfeit sports memorabilia ring.
Despite the film’s occasional attempts to be uplifting, it’s a depressing story. And it’s even more depressingly told, thanks to the hackneyed dialogue, cheap dramatics and poorly staged fight sequences that look like they were unrehearsed. Perhaps the most painful aspect is the portrayals of the numerous celebrities figuring in the story. While Jerrod Paige is reasonably convincing as Ali (it helps that the voice is so easy to imitate), the impersonations of such figures as Don King, talk show host Mike Douglas, Howard Cosell and especially Stallone are cringeworthy.
McGowan, although much better looking than the actual Wepner, is credible in the role except in the boxing sequences, and Joe Pantoliano strikes just the right notes as Wepner’s loyal trainer. But the presence of Rocky veteran Burt Young in a glorified cameo just feels like a gimmick.
Production companies: Circle 4 Entertainment, JARS Productions, Massive Film Project, Safier Entertainment, Conquistador Entertainment, Grodnik Aloe Productions, Hantini Productions, Watchout Entertainment
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Zach McGowan, Amy Smart, Taryn Manning, Joe Pantoliano, Burt Young, Arthur L. Bernstein, Adam Falkoff, Jason James Richter
Director: Ken Kushner
Screenwriters: Ken Kushner, Robert Dibella
Producers: Mary Aloe, Ken Kushner, Rob Simmons, Dan Grodnik, Jared Safier, Arthur L. Bernstein, Adam Falkoff, Judy San Roman
Executive producers: Pascal Borno, Alain Gillissen, Ryan Woliner, Ken Del Vecchio, Vito Bruno, Ben McConley, Dominick Martini, Eddie Dovner, Michael Planit, Bruce Rosenfelt, David Rosenfelt
Director of photography: Przemyslaw Reut
Production designer/costume designer: James Dunn
Editor: Rayvin Disla
Composer: Eros Cartechini
Casting: John Thomas, Lawyer Nicholas