Directed by Philippe Falardeau. Starring Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Jim Gaffigan, Michael Rappaport, Pooch Hall, Morgan Spector. (2017, R, 98 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 19, 2017
Before there was Rocky Balboa, there was Chuck Wepner, the heavyweight boxer nicknamed “The Bayonne Bleeder,” whose claim to fame was having gone all 15 rounds with “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali, in 1975. A New Jersey liquor salesman and journeyman boxer with a reputation for being able to withstand punishing blows despite his susceptibility to bloody facial cuts, Wepner spent his life basking in his moment of glory, which was further amplified the following year when a nobody named Sylvester Stallone wrote and starred in the Oscar-winning film Rocky, in which a small-time palooka goes up against the heavyweight champ Apollo Creed. (For decades, Wepner coasted on his undisputed claim to be the real-life Rocky; Stallone eventually settled a claim for compensation out of court.)
Chuck, the movie based on Wepner’s life, is not exactly a boxing movie, however. Although a certain amount of the story takes place in the ring, Chuck is a relatively bloodless movie – especially for a man known as the Bayonne Bleeder. The film is a story about the rise, fall, and redemption of Wepner, a regular Joe who squandered his minor celebrity, hit rock bottom in a cadenza of sybaritic behavior, and then found his way back to the middle with his second wife and renewed status as a local Bayonne hero and New Jersey’s favorite son. In the opening moments of Chuck, we see Wepner in the ring fighting an actual bear, while in voiceover the character pauses the action to explain to the audience how his life had sunk to this ridiculous stunt and other such shameless activities. With its period-perfect recall of Seventies fashion and cocaine consumption, Chuck’s rise-and-fall story bears greater resemblance to Goodfellas than Rocky or Raging Bull.
Liev Schreiber channels the thuggishness of his inner Ray Donovan and a bulked-up form to play Wepner, and is further enhanced by the prizefighter’s peacock wardrobe and frequently bandaged visage. Schreiber is also one of Chuck’s producers, rightly seeing this project as one he seemed particularly fit to tell. Great supporting work is also delivered by Elisabeth Moss as Phyliss, Chuck’s first wife who wouldn’t brook his philandering; Naomi Watts as his second wife Linda, a bartender who becomes Chuck’s Adrian; and Jim Gaffigan, as Chuck’s best friend and true believer John. Québécois Philippe Falardeau (The Good Lie, Monsieur Lazhar) directs the outrageous antics with an even hand, even if some signs of the film’s low budget occasionally seep through the seams. Jeff Feuerzeig (The Devil and Daniel Johnston), who directed The Real Rocky documentary for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, contributes to the screenplay along with Jerry Stahl, Michael Cristofer, and Schreiber. Chuck manages to accurately capture the flavors of New Jersey (this I know, because I, too, hail from Bayonne). But more than its depiction of the times and one man’s debauchery, the film tells an achingly true story about chasing dreams and letting them slip through your hands, as well as the gravitational forces that cause one’s life to seek its own level.