It often seems like there have been only two boxing movies made in the past 40 years: Rocky and Raging Bull. Each has been produced countless times, to be sure, whether as direct sequels or unofficial remakes of that beloved underdog story about a southpaw from Philly, or in the many eulogies for a fighter that followed Martin Scorsese’s ode to ringside brutal beauty (and toxic masculinity). What makes Philippe Falardeau’s Chuck so amusing, however, is that it is purportedly about the inspiration for the first, but frequently plays like the latter.
In that sense, it truly has the ability to change up its style mid-fight.
Told with admirable pluck and a surprising amount of self-effacement—as if the picture is aware that it could never possibly escape the Sly Stallone shadow it welcomes in almost every frame—Chuck recounts the Kafkaesque career of Chuck Wepner, played here by Liev Schreiber with a Garden State slur that is always thick but never saccharine. Whether he liked it or not, Wepner was known as the Bleeder from Bayonne due to his skin’s habit of easily opening up. He also once upon a time got the first Heavyweight Champ title shot against Muhammad Ali following The Greatest’s career revival at the Rumble in the Jungle.
It is safe to say that Wepner was never in danger of winning his biggest fight, but he still does get to brag that he knocked the champ on his ass for half-a-second and went a full 15 rounds against Ali before having the ref call a technical K.O. Treated like a hometown hero after the fact, this blue collar schmoe who also once moonlighted as a reluctant leg-breaker and dreamed of “going the distance” became the local celebrity who inspired a far greater fictional one in the mind of Sylvester Stallone.
On the surface, Chuck Wepner’s Cinderella story is pretty close to Mr. Balboa’s, except when it isn’t. According to the film, which is narrated with the kind of used car salesman voiceover slickness that would later define many post-Raging Bull Scorsese films, Wepner’s edges were much more pronounced. He never was the naïve babe in the woods of the 1977 Best Picture winner, nor was he a particularly good husband. In fact, Schreiber’s Chuck is a downright louse who spends the first half of the film chronically cheating on his long-suffering wife Phyllis (Elizabeth Moss), and the second half trying to forget her and their daughter in a sea of booze, drugs, and prideful boasts of being… well, the real life Rocky.
Hence, this movie does often err closer to the self-destruction story of that other boxing classic, but it never loses its sense of humor or the meta-quality of being a biopic in which a major subplot is the protagonist chasing down Stallone (Morgan Spector) in order to get a walk-on part in Rocky II. It also begins with him late in his career fighting a bear, so there’s that.
Originally titled The Bleeder before the release of last November’s much more earnest (and by the numbers) underdog true story, Bleed for This, Chuck is a refreshing departure from all the movies its source material unintentionally inspired. Schreiber’s Chuck is enamored early on with Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), and one imagines he also probably enjoyed Body and Soul (1947) too.
But his life story is told with a light on its feet narrative briskness, ensuring a filmic rope-a-dope that’s curiously slight in nature, but immensely watchable. A good degree of the entertainment comes from Schreiber who under thick prosthetics offers a breezy and easy-going charm that allows this version of Wepner to understandably get away with a lot more than he should. While never the violent monster of De Niro’s Jake LaMotta, this Chuck is really just a working stiff who becomes obsessed with his own celebrity. There’s a genial affability about this pettiness that makes the character endearing despite his braggadocio.
He is also surrounded by a talented supporting cast led primarily by a strong Moss who turns passive aggression into its own boxing strategy. In the role of the wife who puts up with too much, Moss cannot be put in the picture enough. Ron Perlman is also an always welcome presence as Wepner’s trainer, Al Braverman. Jim Gaffigan is likewise present as the hanger-on John, but audiences will likely be most interested to see Naomi Watts’ small yet pivotal role as Linda, the ginger-haired bartender who becomes the greatest prize in Chuck’s eye this side of getting to keep one of Rocky’s Oscars.
This may be the last film together for the separated husband-and-wife duo, but they certainly still have an onscreen sizzle here that helps drift Chuck over the rote redemption beats of the third act.
In the end, Chuck has a lot going on in front of the camera and in its ouroboros subject matter to allow the movie to slide through the fact that it is another boxing movie—and one that doesn’t appear very interested in being a great one. It prefers just rolling with the punches, happy to go the 101-minute distance. And it mostly does.
There may be no gold prize in this movie’s future, but when it’s so happy to just be standing in the ring, it’s hard not to smile along with its hero’s starstruck grin.
Chuck is now playing at the Tribeca Film Festival and premieres on May 5, 2017.