By Bradley Alsop, Staff Writer
The boxing movie, a cinematic trope that has been replicated, inverted and adapted countless times since the likes of “Raging Bull” and the “Rocky” franchise, remains through to today because of the sheer physical and emotional toll such an isolating sport like boxing can take on its athletes. Boxers have teams that solely focus on the individual. Their only opponent are other individuals that they have to physically attack and weaken for twelve rounds of combat. If they lose, be it by knockout or split decision, the accountability falls solely upon their shoulders. Such mental and physical gymnastics, especially the inner machinations of what lead to them, make for riveting adaptations. Ben Younger’s “Bleed For This,” a beautifully crafted, highly stylized take on the trope, is yet another step in the right direction for such a subgenre.
The film centers around the trials and tribulations of the boxer Vinny Pazienza in what may be Miles Teller’s best on-screen performance. The film follows Pazienza’s career from near irrelevance, to potential career-ending injury and back into the spotlight. The film is shot with deft precision by Younger. It hinges on the performances of Teller and Aaron Eckhart, who assumes the role of Pazienza’s trainer, Kevin Rooney.
Teller disappears into his character, a quick-witted, fast-talking workaholic with a thick Providence accent. The first scene sets up Teller’s character skillfully. For the first fight the viewer anticipates in the film, Pazienza is late for the weigh-in. Vinny’s father, Angelo (Ciaran Hinds), feverishly dials Vinny’s number on a payphone in the weigh-in area, gets Vinny on the other line, and exasperatedly asks where he is.
As it happens, Vinny is in his hotel room getting wrapped in plastic wrap in his underwear, pedaling quickly on a stationary bike. This beautifully composed opening sequence gives the viewer a point of entry into Pazienza’s psyche: he loves boxing enough to do everything he can to make weight for a fight. But he also loves himself enough to not particularly care that he’s holding up the fight itself in the process.
Eckhart serves as the emotional center in the film, in a role that renders the man virtually unrecognizable. While he usually appears more debonair and sleek, Eckhart’s Rooney is a balding, pot-bellied, hard-living boxing coach in a tracksuit. Surrounded by his demons, Rooney displaces all of that negative energy into boxing. The scenes where despite orders from his family and medical professionals, Pazienza begs Rooney to continue to train him through his life-threatening injuries, and Eckhart consents and begins to, are arresting to behold. The emotional interplay here lays bare both characters. It’s not that Pazienza or Rooney think this is necessarily a good idea. It’s that even if they did, they have no control over what they need to do in order to feel alive.
Teller, for all intents and purposes, in the scenes in the hospital and on the path to rehabilitation, is extraordinary. He acts like a man who is in excruciating pain but does not particularly care; a hard balance to strike. The only part where the movie falters is when it leans back on the crutches that are the conventions of the boxing movies of years gone by. Strip this film of its cliches and supplement them with more procedural and familial moments, and this would be a stellar film — not just about a boxer’s life, but as a film about life through boxing.
“Bleed For This” was released in theaters nationwide on Nov. 18, 2016.