You know what was great about the movie Rocky? You genuinely didn’t know who was going to win the match at the end between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed. And even then, when the fight was over, the movie defied expectations by having Rocky lose (oh shit, did I spoil that for anyone?). But lately, there have been a slew of boxing pictures that have stuck stubbornly to a template that becomes more numbingly predictable every time out. The latest such effort, Bleed for This, follows the same pattern of rise, fall, comeback and redemption that has become so automatic for this particular subgenre of sports movie that you can almost set your watch by the narrative beats as they happen.
Bleed for This, directed and written by Ben Younger (who made the terrific Wall Street movie Boiler Room 16 years ago), does have its strengths. The movie recounts the true story of Vinny Pazienza, a Rhode Island fighter who worked his way up to junior middleweight, won the title, and then lost it when a car accident left him with a broken neck and the possibility of never walking again, let alone boxing. Wearing a device called a Halo that was literally screwed into his skull for three months to keep his neck straight as it healed, Pazienza began training once more — and was back in the ring just 13 months later, going on to win several more middleweight and super middleweight titles. Many of the heroes in boxing movies re-emerge from some kind of adversity (that’s part of the formula), but I can’t recall one as extreme as having your spine severed.
Pazienza is played by Miles Teller (Whiplash), whose natural cockiness lends itself well to the outsized personality of a fighter like Paz. His trainer, Kevin Rooney, who once trained Mike Tyson but is out of work and drunk when we meet him, is portrayed by a balding, paunchy, unrecognizable Aaron Eckhart, carrying a damaged nobility in the role. Both actors are superb, with Eckhart bringing subtle calculation to the part of a former fighter who has to dance around a different ring — the minefield of emotions and arguments between Paz and his headstrong father/manager Angelo (the always wonerful Ciaran Hinds). The weak spot in the ensemble is the lack of any standout female roles, with only Katey Sagal as Paz’s mother — who sits and prays for her son but can’t bring herself to watch the actual fights — leaving an impression.
The cast go through their paces against a rundown but charming working-class backdrop of Rhode Island life, with the film accurately capturing the details of its time and place (which are reminiscent of yet another New England-based boxing picture, The Fighter). Shooting on location, Bleed for This gives us the workaday and somewhat ramshackle environs in which Paz lives and trains; more of a regional hero that a truly national sports figure, Paz never quite leaves his old life behind, and on that count Bleed for This is a bit different: there’s no mansion or toys for him to lose.
But elsewhere Bleed for This is yesterday’s bread. Even with the nature of his injury, we know Vinny is going to come back; there’s really no suspense in the telling of his tale. Even if it wasn’t a true story, the movie is structured to build toward that emotional payoff. Younger also shows no particular flair for the boxing scenes. The punches don’t land with any real weight and the director doesn’t immerse us in the middle of the action with a noticeable flair or style. The story of Vinny’s comeback is incredible, but Bleed for This — with the exception of a couple of grueling scenes in the middle as he restarts his training — makes it all pre-ordained, mechanistic and lacking any real sense of just how wrenching the whole experience was.
Bleed for This is far from bad (another 2016 boxing entry, Hands of Stone, was just plain lousy), but its dogged, formulaic nature makes me think that the boxing genre, as colorful and inspiring as it can be, needs a break. The stories we’re getting are all “triumph of the human spirit” sagas that increasingly don’t delve any deeper than that. Details aside, Southpaw and Hands of Stone, and Bleed for This are all the same story, whether they’re even based on real-life events or not (in fact, for a period of time before both came out, I kept getting Southpaw and this film confused with each other). Bleed for This goes the distance but feels after a while like it’s just trudging through the motions and moving wearily around the ring; pardon all the puns, but the genre needs a real knockout punch to make it interesting again.
Bleed for This is out in theaters today (Nov. 18).