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Few may realize that the greatest drama faced by the real-life Rocky Balboa began after his landmark fight. Canadian filmmaker Philippe Falardeau goes after this tale of human frailty and redemption in the unpretentious but gently affecting biopic The Bleeder. “The Bayonne Bleeder” was the moniker of prizefighter Chuck Wepner, a liquor salesman from New Jersey who in 1975, quite incredibly, challenged Muhammad Ali for Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the world and stood up to him for 15 punishing rounds.
Falardeau, who made his mark with the Oscar-nominated teacher-student tale Monsieur Lazhar, again brings real tenderness to his portrait of a man in trouble. Though he smoothly tells the story of his rise, he’s far more drawn to the misfortune of sudden fame, made especially heartbreaking because his working class hero is so totally ill-equipped to deal with his own ego. A boxing film with very little blood, cruelty or ringside violence, this is a far cry from a high-adrenaline blood-fest, but for that reason it could open up to non-sports (even family) audiences drawn by the fine cast lead by Liev Schreiber as the ex-champ and Naomi Watts in the supporting role of a sassy, supportive barista. Spiced with the amusing kitsch of 1970s New Jersey, this potentially sad story never feels downbeat, but more like an object lesson in humility and self-discovery.
There’s also a lot of referential cinema in The Bleeder to draw in festival audiences, like those who saw it premiere out of competition in Venice. Besides the essential confrontation with Rocky, pleasantly electrified by Morgan Spector’s long-haired, wasp-waisted appearance as a kindly Sly Stallone, excerpts of Anthony Quinn in Ralph Nelson’s 1962 film Requiem for a Heavyweight are repeated like a mantra. The fact that Muhammad Ali (then called Cassius Clay) actually appeared in Requiem, throwing punches at the camera, is an unstressed tie-in. But the biggest resonance is the parallel between good-hearted prizefighters down on their luck, watching their careers go down the toilet without a clue how to save themselves.
Chuck Wepner is a happily married Bayonne family man who has a series of winning matches under his belt. His trainer-manager Al Braverman, vividly played by Ron Perlman, is prepping him to face George Foreman, who is supposed to defeat Muhammad Ali in a key match for the title. When Foreman loses, all seems lost until Wepner, the only white boxer among the top ten contenders of the day, is chosen for what everyone believes will be a fast knock-out. The odds are 40-to-1 for Ali.
Blessedly, screenwriters Jeff Feuerzeig and Jerry Stahl spare us the numbing details of Chuck’s prep work. With actor and trained boxer Pooch Hall in the trunks of Muhammad Ali, the match flies by. It’s obvious to all the sportscasters that the contender Wepner is slow and awkward. But very, very resistant. Chuck’s only goal is to stay on his feet till the final bell, but when he almost accidentally knocks Ali down, the champ becomes infuriated and lets go.
Though he may not have won the match, Chuck returns home a hero. What he doesn’t see coming is the release of the monster hit Rocky, in which Stallone’s heroic stay-the-day fight with Apollo Creed is clearly modeled on his bout with Ali. His celebrity goes through the roof, not followed, alas, by his emotional intelligence. Ignoring the warnings from his wife Phyllis, played by Elisabeth Moss as an admirably spunky woman who won’t tolerate any fooling around, Chuck is so clueless he digs his own grave, and the filmmakers make a point of placing the blame for his losses squarely on his own bad behavior.
As he wobbles off on a disastrous course of coke, booze and women, the 1970s setting really kicks in, with the excellent production design, costumes, music and the mindset weaving a kitschy trap for the weak-minded boxer. He imagines himself to be Rocky Balboa while surrounded by fawning bimbos and his loyal but idiotic best friend John (a quite funny Jim Gaffigan). Their drive to Philadelphia for a try out in the Rocky sequel is hilariously embarrassing, but Schreiber also puts a light of dismay in his eye that foretells Chuck’s dawning realization of his own failings. The final upward movement is postponed by a serious turn of events just as he’s making some headway with razor-tongued Jersey bartender Linda, who Naomi Watts turns into a savvy, down-to-earth gal.
At first sight Liev Schreiber doesn’t seem like natural casting for a heavyweight, nor does he pump up his muscles or turn his face into a fright mask the way Jake Gyllenhaal did in Southpaw. But he has a willing gameness that matches the role, and an endearing way of wearing an ill-fitting plaid coat in scene after scene that speaks volumes about feeling comfortable with where he comes from. Chuck’s character is to roll with the punches and refuse to be knocked out even when out-classed, and Schreiber lets that emerge with more humility than fanfare.
Falardeau keeps his romance, if that’s what you call it, with Watts well within the limits of reality. Much of the film’s charm stems from the characters’ hidden feelings, and the quick final scene between Chuck and his estranged brother (a ferocious Michael Rappaport) offers a real emotional payoff without going soft.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: Millennium Films, Jeff Rice Films, Campbell Grobman, Mandalay Sports Media
Cast: Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Elisabeth Moss, Ron Perlman, Jim Gaffigan, Pooch Hall, Michael Rapaport, Morgan Spector
Director: Philippe Falardeau
Screenwriters: Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl
Producers: Mike Tollin, Carl Hampe, Christa Campbell, Lati Grobman, Liev Schreiber
Executive producers: Avi Lerner, Mark Gill, Trevor Short, Jeff Rice, Jeff Feuerzeig
Director of photography: Nicolas Bolduc
Production designer: Inbal Weinberg
Costume designer: Vicki Farrell
Editor: Richard Comeau
Music: Corey Allen Jackson
Casting: Billy Hopkins, Ashley Ingram
Sales: Millennium Films
No rating; 101 minutes
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