“Bleed for This is still very much a conventional boxing movie”
Before a tragic car accident nearly killed him, boxer Vinny Pazienza had an incredible run. And then he went and had another following a long road to recovery. Bleed for This fittingly shows his sacrifices in a way that emphasizes the grit while downplaying the kind of “all or nothing” boxing scenes we, long-suffering moviegoers, have endured for decades on end.
It’s still surprising to me that boxing, a sport that’s been declining in national popularity save for the annual “marquee” fight like Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao, is still such a sought-after commodity and crutch for Hollywood stories. Perhaps it’s the adrenaline rush audiences get when they see two men beaten and bruised to a bloody pulp, or maybe it’s the human tendencies and struggle that eclipses a lot of the familiarity in narrative structure and approach. The latter makes Bleed for This that much more enjoyable than Hands of Stone, the other boxing film nobody saw this past summer, and the fact that the action in the ring takes a backseat to writer/director Ben Younger showing us a grueling recovery is also a serious plus.
Miles Teller plays Vinny Pazienza, a pugnacious instigator of a fighter, who tirelessly tries to get his weight down to compete in lightweight and middleweight fights. However, even when he wins fights, he usually winds up in the hospital afterwards, where the only thing on his mind being how soon he can get back in the ring. He’s so determined that he even goes against the grain to keep fighting when the head of HBO tells him that he thinks his career is over and he should look to other things.
After a horrific head-on collision causes severe neck and spinal damage to Vinny, everyone but him feels the same way; he needs to find something else to occupy his time. His personal trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), who was appointed to him shortly after his most recent fight put him in the hospital, has moral complications with training or getting him back on track for fear of further damage. Following surgery, Vinny is placed in a metal “halo,” which is screwed into his skull in four different places, as his head and neck are assisted up by four long rods. It’s a sight almost as difficult to watch as the accident.
Whenever Vinny asks when he’ll be able to get back in the ring, everyone from his father to the doctors tell him, “it’s not that simple,” or that he would be lucky to properly walk again. Vinny doesn’t care. He’d rather take the risk of further damaging himself by way of trying to fight again than live like a vegetable on a hospital bed in his living room. He basically forces Kevin to assist him in getting on the fast-track to recovery so he can eventually fight Roberto Durán (the boxer who the focus of Hands of Stone, for the record).
It should surprise no one who has been paying attention to damn-near any genre of film these last three years that Miles Teller is terrific. Not that the young actor needed to prove himself again after his excellent performers were fittingly showcased in everything from Whiplash to War Dogs, but Teller shows that he can create a character who is more than just the sum of buzzwords like courage and determination. Assisting him is Aaron Eckhart, who has a landmark year for himself in playing roles that show the strength and conviction that a supporting actor can bring, another great example being his sometimes overlooked role in Sully. Eckhart’s character battles with moral grievances as well as alcoholism throughout the course of the film, but he serves as a powerful motivator to Vinny in a way that Eckhart strongly conveys.
Where Bleed for This could simply gloss over Vinny’s recovery in montage, it chooses to linger on situations where he has difficulty even getting in and out of a vehicle, on top of how devastating his surprise birthday is for him as he’s still encased in the halo. It’s often a depressing sight that Younger would rather evoke than gloss over, and with Teller and Eckhart at the helm, it’s a solid showcase for them even if the material surrounding them isn’t always great.
At the end of the day, Bleed for This is still very much a conventional boxing movie, taking notes from other more successful films in order to succeed on its own merits. To it and Younger’s credit, it would probably be even more difficult to pen a boxing film that wasn’t erected on some sort of familiar narrative devices. While the finale unfolds the way you can infer, the journey is no less compelling in moments and sequences, and to see a display of two fine actors with a gritty focus on the suffering and mental anguish that devastating circumstance can prompt, yet the fire it can simultaneously instill, it’s fairly worth it after all.