In terms of quality, there is a pretty high floor for Hollywood boxing dramas. While there are certainly outliers, both excellent (Raging Bull, Rocky) and poor (Rocky V), competently made boxing films typically range in quality from the higher-than-average low end of something like Play it To The Bone (1999) and a very respectable but not transcendent high-end of The FIghter (2010). These boxing films most typically follow the Rocky mold, in which a loveable lunk of a prizefighter from a colorful and easily recognizable working-class background, believed to have no chance for greatness for some reason or another, gets his shot and proves his worth by either winning the climactic fight or losing by decision after “going the distance.” Actors too old to play boxers anymore will be afforded the opportunity to give Oscar nomination-garnering speeches playing weathered managers, actresses will be given thankless roles as concerned wives, girlfriends, and mothers. The formula works. Ben Younger’s Bleed For This does not set itself apart from the boxing film pack in any particularly compelling way, but it does work well within the formula. It’s just a boxing moving, but it’s a good one.
The hook for Bleed For This is that it is about real-life boxer Vinny Pazienza, who overcame a near-paralyzing injury sustained in a car wreck, to regain his title as junior middleweight champion. Miles Teller does good work playing Pazienza, spending much of the movie wearing neck-stabilizing headwear that he never lets distract from his performance. Between this film and Whiplash (2014) Teller may be the industry’s new top actor when it comes to portraying characters pushing themselves through agonizing pain. Pazienza is stated, a bit too clumsily, to be a man who does not know when to quit, he cannot be stopped from giving 100% at all times, a quality seen a strength in a man but a weakness in a boxer, and Teller brings this across nicely. Fine work is also done by the film’s requisite weathered older men; Ciarán Hinds as Paz’s supportive but concerned father, Ted Levine as a morally-dubious former manager and promoter, and Aaron Eckhart as Paz’s hard-drinking, tough-love appropriating manager. Eckhart is the actor vying hardest for an Academy Award nomination here, putting on the thickest regional accent, and a little paunch for the sake of realism and showing that he is a dedicated performer. Katey Sagal is the worried mother here and, despite appearing on posters for the film, Christine Evangelista has only a brief role as one of a series of big-haired Italian-American women whom Paz dates.
The real downside of Bleed For This comes in its pacing. The accident that lays the protagonist low does not come until about the hour mark, after two fight sequences have already come and gone. The movie feels longer than its two hours because the major obstacle does not come until so late in the runtime, giving the proceedings a bit of a shapeless feeling. Aside from the pacing, writer-director Younger does more than adequate work as, delivering pathos and humor when appropriate, and directing the fight sequences in competent if not exceptional fashion. When awards season comes around you can expect Bleed For This to pop up at more than a couple of ceremonies in more than a couple of categories. The Hollywood Foreign Press and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences love a competently made, accessible, unchallenging drama. In this department, Bleed For This delivers in spades.
Bleed For This
Director: Ben Younger
Producer: Bruce Cohen, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Chad A. Verdi, Noah Kraft, Pamela Thur, Ben Younger
Writer: Ben Younger
Cinematographer: Larkin Seiple
Editor: Zac Stuart-Pontier
Starring: Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Katey Sagal, Ciáran Hinds, Ted Levine