Many an inspirational boxing story includes the Obligatory Training Montage (OBT), where our hero picks himself off the mat, gets back to basics, pounds the heavy bag, drips with sweat, punishes the speed bag, is urged on by the Crusty Trainer Also Seeking Redemption and gets us all pumped up for The Big Fight.
If I’m not mistaken, “Bleed for This” is the first such film in which the boxer in the OBT is wearing a halo neck brace.
Miles Teller gives the performance of his career as the indefatigable Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza, and writer-director Ben Younger delivers one of the best boxing movies of the decade in “Bleed for This.”
This is a gritty, hard-nosed film that nails just about every detail, starting with Teller’s complete transformation into the bent-nosed, wisecracking, stubborn, blackjack-loving, girl-crazy, huge-hearted Vinny, continuing through the superb performances from the outstanding ensemble cast, the spot-on depiction of a bickering but incredibly close-knit working class Italian family — and the technology, the state of the boxing world and, oh yes, the fashion choices of the late 1980s.
We’re talking about the champion of the world sporting a fanny pack, ladies and gents.
“Bleed for This” is based on the true, incredible story of Pazienza, a Providence, Rhode Island, brawler with a style right out of the Jake La Motta playbook: Let the other guy hit you until he wears himself out — and then, if you’re still able to keep on your feet, you knock him out.
In the opening moments of “Bleed for This,” we get a hint we’re going to see something better than just a solid, generic boxing story. There’s a slow-motion sequence of the flashy Vinny and his equally flashy girlfriend strutting down the corridor of a Vegas hotel on their way to a weigh-in — and then something really funny happens, and I’ll just leave it at that.
With just that one little touch, writer-director Younger lets us know that while we might be traveling down a familiar road, he’s going to give us all sorts of interesting and unique sights along the way.
The lethal Roger Mayweather (Peter Quillin) creams Vinny in that first fight, leading Vinny’s trainer and manager, the legendary Lou Duva (Ted Levine), to announce on HBO it’s time for Vinny to hang up the gloves and call it a career.
Vinny signs on with Kevin Rooney, onetime hotshot trainer of Mike Tyson, but now just a paunchy, booze-soaked shadow of his former self. (Aaron Eckhart goes Full Method with his portrayal of Rooney, shaving back his hairline and sporting a serious gut. He also takes what could have been a clichéd role and turns it into something special. I’d watch a whole movie with Aaron Eckhart playing Kevin Rooney.)
Against the wishes of Vinny’s father and longtime cornerman Angelo (Ciaran Hinds, always a force), Kevin advises Vinny to jump up two weight classes — and it works. Once again, Vinny’s on top of the world.
And then(SPOILER ALERT, although this all happened in real life a quarter century ago) …
There’s a horrific car accident, leaving Vinny with a fractured neck. In the hospital, when Vinny asks the doctor when he can fight again, the doctor says he’s not even sure Vinny will ever WALK again.
Which eventually brings us to that training sequence with Vinny still wearing a halo as he works out in secret in his parents’ basement in the middle of the night. (When the halo is taken off after six months, Vinny refuses to take a sedative. One by one, the bloody screws are removed. Yes, this guy actually has a screw loose. More than one.)
I loved the scenes in the Pazienza home, which is decorated with dozens of religious icons and an impressive collection of elephant figurines as well. Of course we’ve seen dozens of movies in which the extended Italian-American family crowds into the kitchen as they talk over one another and exchange loving insults with one another — but there’s never a moment of condescension or parody here. It feels real.
When Vinny makes his return to the ring, it’s a championship fight against none other than Roberto Duran, whose own story was told in the excellent “Hands of Stone” just a few months ago.
(In reality, Pazienza’s first fight when he returned to the ring was against Luis Santana. He had a number of other fights before he finally faced off against Duran in 1994 and again in 1995. Timelines are compressed. Poetic license comes into play. The essence of Vinny’s story shines through.)
The boxing sequences in “Bleed for This” aren’t as intense and brutal as in the aforementioned film, and they’re certainly not in the same ring as “Raging Bull.” But they’re good enough, and Teller is believable enough as he crosses weight classes at various points in the story.
In addition to Younger’s first-rate script and his fine directing work, in addition to the electric work by Teller and the beautifully nuanced performances from Aaron Eckhart, Ciaran Hinds, Katey Sagal and Ted Levine, among others, kudos to cinematographer Larkin Seiple and editor Zachary Stuart-Pointer. There was something poetic about the look and the rhythm of this film. It’s one of the best movies of the year.
Open Road Filmspresents a film written and directed by Ben Younger. Rated R(for language, sexuality/nudity and some accident images). Running time: 116minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.