In boxing movies, it’s usually the lead actor who undergoes the most dramatic physical transformation, whether it’s Robert De Niro alternately pumping iron or gorging on pasta to play Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, or Jake Gyllenhaal bulking up to play a bereaved fighter in Southpaw.
In Bleed For This, directed by Ben Younger (Boiler Room, Prime), Miles Teller provides a sinewy performance as real-life boxer Vinny ‘Paz’ Pazienza, but the most startling turn in the movie comes from Aaron Eckhart, who plays his hard-drinking trainer, Kevin. When Eckhart climbs out of his Porsche to meet Vinnie for the first time in the opening act, it’s not so much the prominent belly and half-moon hairline that render Eckhart unrecognisable as his body language and thick east-coast accent. It’s a spectacular supporting performance, and one that becomes key to the film as it moves from familiar sports drama territory to somewhere far more unsettling.
Beginning in 1988, Bleed For This follows Paz, an Italian-American fighter with a boxing style that hovers somewhere between crowd-pleasing flamboyance and dangerously cavalier. Even when he wins bouts, his unguarded approach often lands him in hospital, and his management’s beginning to think he should bow out of the profession while he still can.
Paz’s career seems to turn a corner when, against the wishes of his pushy, bullish father Angelo, (Ciaran Hinds), he teams up with Eckhart’s Kevin, a seasoned trainer with work troubles of his own: he’s just been fired by heavyweight world champion Mike Tyson. Kevin coaxes Paz to moving up two grades to junior middleweight, a risky proposition that quickly pays off. Then fate plays Paz a brutally cruel hand: a near-fatal car crash leaves him with a broken neck and a career in tatters.
It’s here that the story (also written by Younger) begins to do something different within the framework of a typical boxing movie. The stages of Paz’s treatment are presented with the same sense of dramatic weight as the boxing matches; through close-ups, intimate use of sound and quick cuts, Younger brings home the physical and psychological endurance test the boxer faces on his road to recovery. Teller, whose performance feels distant and difficult to read in the opening reels, suddenly finds focus as his character faces new, seemingly insurmountable challenges outside the ring. After the Oscar-winning Whiplash, Bleed For This is another example of Teller’s abilities as a young actor coming into their own.
Shot on a tiny budget of around $6m, Bleed For This looks like a far more expensive movie than it actually is. Its sound design and editing are particularly worth singling out: sound abruptly cuts out in a fight; a music montage ends with lurching suddenness; a later bout of training takes place in silence, and we feel Paz’s agony as he struggles to chin the bar.
The risks the movie takes in its casting are another masterstroke. Eckhart and Hinds aren’t obvious choices, but the interplay between Teller and the two of them provides the film with a real dramatic spark. All are flawed yet likeable characters, weighed down by their addictions, their arrogance or their stubbornness. Some of the movie’s best scenes are the quieter ones between these three; Eckhart as a mentor and friend, Hinds as a manager so keen to push his son to success that he barely realises that he’s ceased to be a father.
In its fight scenes, Bleed For This lacks some of the gut-level immediacy of Ryan Coogler’s Creed, a Rocky spin-off that was far, far better than it deserved to be. But as a drama, it’s a more emotionally satisfying, less showy film than David O Russell’s The Fighter, which was also based on a true-life boxer. Its triumph-over-adversity theme is typical of a film punching for Oscar glory but Bleed For This is shot and acted with a low-budget grit and honesty that means it feels like something more than a showcase for a bunch of performers and filmmakers with an eye on winning golden statues.
A drama confidently told and superbly acted, Bleed For This is thoroughly satisfying return from Younger, who hasn’t made a feature in over a decade. Here’s hoping this comeback movie marks the start of a new, more prolific stage in the filmmaker’s career.
Bleed For This is out in UK cinemas on the 2nd December.