“Bleed for This,” the latest in a recent swarm of movies based on true stories, not only has to overcome the need to build drama despite the audience knowing the ending but also has to do that while working with a very familiar sports movie trope. This is another drama that looks for sweet ratings from the boxing movie genre that has already gone into extra rounds.
As for the first hurdle, how well the familiar story entertains depends on the person taking on the central figure. Both Tom Hanks in “Sully” and Andrew Garfield in “Hacksaw Ridge” took what was known about their real life characters and gave them added dimensions through moving performances.
The key is to maintain the essence of the person while leaving room to bring parts of themselves to the part. In both cases, the productions also featured strong love stories that gave the actors more options with their acting decisions.
The challenge in “Bleed for This” fell to Miles Teller to portray boxing champion Vinny Pazienza who after besting WBA World Jr. Middleweight Champion Gilbert Dele, was involved in a car accident that left him with a broken neck. The break was so severe doctors were convinced he would never box again.
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Pazienza wasn’t ready to retire and with the help of his trainer, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), began a training program to return to the ring.
Teller’s career has been a mix of solid acting efforts, such as in “Whiplash,” and clunky work in movies like “Fantastic Four.” He’s an actor who has had small explosions of raw talent but never shown any consistency.
This is one of the lesser explosions as he manages to give the character some life. He’s also got himself into the right physical shape to play a boxer with a winning record. But Teller just doesn’t completely have the look of a blue collar boxer and always comes across looking more like the top person in fisticuffs on the Princeton pugilist team.
He never pushes the performance outside the ring. This is a man who was told one wrong hit would leave him paralyzed and he decided to gamble on the really bad odds. That’s plenty of emotions to play.
The lack of a real love interest hurts. There are no quiet moments for him to get support from the person he would trust most in his life.
Some of this could have been corrected by director Ben Younger, who wrote the script with the help of Pippa Bianco and Angelo Pizzo. He’s too content with three clear acts of a human drama set against the world of boxing that work well enough but offer little new.
This is based on a true story but Younger could have cheated a little more with the connections between Pazienza and his father (Ciarán Hinds) , his mother (Katey Sagal) or any other member of his large family. Younger had no problem re-arranging the comeback fight to have Pazienza fighting a better known name to those who don’t follow boxing. Adjusting family dynamics would have been just as OK.
Younger gives the film a little bit of an edge through long tracking shots and sequences filmed with a hand-held camera. They are nice touches, and there are some moments of solid human drama but not enough to make this movie a complete standout from all of the other boxing films.
Despite a few missed punches, the story is interesting enough that “Bleed for This” should be a big hit with boxing fans. Even if you don’t know Vinny Pazienza from Manny Pacquiao, the film is an interesting story of determination, hope and a love of a profession so strong even the threat of death can’t stop it.
Bleed for This
Cast: Miles Teller, Katey Sagal, Christine Evangelista, Ted Levine, Aaron Eckhart
Director: Ben Younger
Rating: R (language, sexuality, nudity)
Opens: Friday, Nov. 18