By Daniella Nichinson, Staff Writer
The most compelling stories come either from a character with innumerable flaws, a character who assumes the role of an underdog, or a character based on a real person. In the case of “Chuck,” it comes from all three. Chuck Wepner’s name may not be immediately recognizable to those outside the fighting realm, but to those who followed his lengthy and often peculiar career, he is a phenomenon. A man who lasted 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali and inspired one of the most seminal boxing films of all time, “Rocky,” Philippe Falardeu’s “Chuck” aims to capture his true legacy and tumultuous life.
Inherently, “Chuck” is a fascinating story because its protagonist is an unknown hero: someone who has yet to be introduced, or reintroduced, to the minds of viewers. The film follows Chuck (Liev Schreiber), nicknamed the “Bayonne Bleeder,” on his wild exploits inside the ring and out, mostly out, as he exists in a cycle of drugs, booze and women. His relationships are failing, especially when his wife Phyliss (Elisabeth Moss) leaves him, but him and a local bartender, Linda (Naomi Watts), have an instant connection that resonates throughout the film, and proves to be an essential feature.
A wise choice made by director Falardeu was to shoot the film in a gritty and grainy style, adding to its authenticity and evoking a greatly realistic feel for the 1970s. Because the images resemble an atmosphere of this tough world, it provides a proper setting for Chuck’s story and establishes a mood that the remainder of the film will proudly embrace.
What would at first glance seem to be Chuck’s peak moment of his career, going into the ring with Muhammad Ali for a chance at the heavyweight title, is introduced early on the narrative. Rather, the film focuses on the events after Chuck’s bout with Ali, which is where the core of his tale lies: how he rose to fame, fell, and ultimately made peace with himself. The actual turning point was Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky,” inspired by Chuck’s life, which gave him another boost of confidence and transformed him, yet again, into a local celebrity. The film paints this as the moment that indirectly sparked Chuck’s downfall and served as a reminder of him desperately holding onto fame.
The film is largely a character study, and with a man like Chuck Wepner as its model, it is a captivating one. In many ways, it is a story of redemption—a redemption that takes place off-screen. Though Chuck leaves several relationships estranged, the film’s ending is a clear sign that the future looks promising, and given Chuck Wepner is alive and well, it manifests as true.
Boxing movies have been done and made before, but “Chuck” is not a boxing movie. It is a film about someone who often succumbed to his vices, until that had disastrous consequences. But more than that, it is about Chuck’s realization that family and love possess more meaning than fame ever will. With a powerful and devoted performance by Liev Schreiber, “Chuck” is a film that delves into the life of a mythical prizefighter and comes out a champion.