Bleed for This
2016, R, 116 min. Directed by Ben Younger. Starring Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Katey Sagal, Ciarán Hinds, Ted Levine, Jordan Gelber, Amanda Clayton, Daniel Sauli, Christine Evangelista, Tina Casciani, Liz Carey, Denise Shaefer.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 18, 2016
The obsessive energy that marked Miles Teller’s breakout performance as the young drummer in Whiplash is also on full display in Bleed for This, in which he plays Vinny Pazienza (aka the Pazmanian Devil), the real-life boxer from Rhode Island who won championship belts in three different weight classes. Overall, Bleed for This is a conventional boxing saga about the improbable comeback of a fallen and flawed champ. You know the dramatic arc from dozens of boxing and other sports movies you’ve seen in the past. Despite its narrative familiarity, the film is suffused with such contagious enthusiasm, distinctive performances, and local color that it stands out nevertheless.
A hometown hero in Providence, R.I., Vinny is a local mook who made good. Although he’s won national bouts, he still acts more like an Italian Catholic guy from the neighborhood than a boxing legend. When we first encounter him, he’s running late to a weigh-in because he’s frantically trying to shed a few more pounds after an undisciplined night of partying at a casino with his girlfriend. After losing the fight, his trainer (Lang) tells him to quit the sport, but Vinny just gets a new trainer: Kevin Rooney (Eckhart, who appears paunchy, balding, and virtually unrecognizable), an alcoholic who has just been fired by Mike Tyson.
A horrific car crash soon breaks Vinny’s neck. The doctors guarantee that he can walk, but not box again, if he undergoes a spinal fusion. Instead, Vinny choses to have a metal halo screwed into his head for six months in the hope that he might eventually box again – or be paralyzed for life. (No ringside blood or punches are as brutal for the audience to watch as the screws being removed from Vinny’s skull while he refuses anesthetics.) This questionable hero also defies doctors’ orders and begins working out surreptitiously in the basement of his house while the halo is still in place.
The more Vinny perseveres, the more you grow to question his single-minded purpose and devoted calling. Writer/director Ben Younger previously touched on similarly dubious obsessiveness within a competitive male sphere in his 2000 debut film Boiler Room. In the end, no matter what you think of this hero and his colorful family members (Ciarán Hinds is unexpectedly brilliant as Vinny’s father), the trainers and promoters, and the ceramic elephant bric-a-brac that lines the shelves of the Pazienza household, the movie brims with a restless vitality. No doubt it’s this quality that attracted Raging Bull’s Martin Scorsese to lend his imprimatur to the film as an executive producer. Yet, to me, Bleed for This is merely a hyperactive workout.
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Bleed for This, Ben Younger, Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Katey Sagal, Ciarán Hinds, Ted Levine, Jordan Gelber, Amanda Clayton, Daniel Sauli, Christine Evangelista, Tina Casciani, Liz Carey, Denise Shaefer