REVIEW – “Bleed For This”
“I’m gonna fight again,” pledges Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza (Miles Teller) after a disastrous and near fatal car wreck shatters his neck, leaving the determined Rhode Island boxing champion with one mission: to get back into fighting shape – and the ring. Based on the inspiring true story (one so outrageous, say the filmmakers, the truth had to be toned down because audiences might find it too unbelievable) of real life champ Vinny Paz – the only professional boxer to hold titles at lightweight, light middleweight and super middleweight – Bleed For This is a knockout, trading blows with comparable contenders and proving itself a champion among the legion of all-time great sports movies.
Filmed in just 24 days, co-writer and director Ben Younger’s (Boiler Room) gritty and emotionally-raw biographic sports drama has the grime, charm and uplifting spirit of of John G. Avildsen’s original Rocky, with the lived-in, bare-knuckled and textured heaviness of The Fighter. Handheld cinematography involves us in the world of this blue-collar 80s slugger, with a cinéma-vérité feel among its biggest strengths. More intimate than flashy, Bleed For This is an open wound – usually unsightly, but always emotive and compelling. Bleed For This wears its heart and its poignancy on its granite chin, stressing both the strength of the human spirit and the undisputed willpower and preservation of the down-but-never-out Vinny Paz.
In Paz’s corner is paunchy alcoholic Kevin Rooney (an almost unrecognizable Aaron Eckhart), religious and squeamish mother Louise (Katey Sagal), and impassioned father Angelo (Ciarán Hinds), all of whom are both supportive and opposing as Vinny’s perennially worried cornermen. Unwilling to bare witness to her dear son bludgeoned in hand-to-hand combat, the proud matriarch avoids the brutal entertainment, choosing instead to listen in from a neighboring room – one permeated with both religious artifacts and relics of Vinny’s rising career, a cultivated shrine to the star of the family. When she’s unavoidably confronted with the visage of Vinny – his neck broken, his spinal cord nearly severed, and his head encased in a constricting metal brace called a Halo – she handles it as sensitively as possible, and much more composed than guilt-ridden father Angelo. He’s watched Vinny risk and hurt himself too long, admits the teary-eyed pop, so disapproving of his son’s stubborn inability to retire the gloves that he removes himself from Vinny’s corner. “This is what I do,” Vinny asserts, “I don’t know how not to do it.”
For Vinny, having been told he may never walk again, much less step foot back into the ring, it’s not enough just to repair his broken body and his bruised spirit: for Vinny, fighting isn’t just a way of life, it is life. Being a fighter isn’t just a part of Vinny, it is Vinny. That’s the emotional core of Bleed For This: when the world says no, you can give up or rise up. The once-rowdy Vinny, humbled but not discouraged by his situation, spends most of Bleed For This‘ two-hour running time recovering from the life-changing accident that nearly derailed his career, and it’s in these meaty comeback scenes – ingrained among real, engaging familial drama – that Bleed For This, and Teller, are at their best. It’s an actor’s responsibility in such a role to convince us towards believing that they’re actually suffering and experiencing this mental, emotional, and physical trauma, and Teller (in an award-worthy performance) sells it so capably the drama could be mistaken for a documentary. The training scenes aren’t as stimulating as Rocky IV‘s or Creed‘s, both of which are meant to get the blood and the iron pumping – instead, the emotionally heavy (but never dour) film builds itself around the foundation of a man fighting to regain his body and his life.
In Bleed For This, Vinny’s comeback is paramount, the boxing action taking a backseat to the raw, emotional intensity of its characters. It’s not so much the actual boxing that’s rousing and inspiring as it is Vinny’s steadfastness and the conquering of his obstacles – and his demons. If you’re looking for gaudy, showy boxing combat, you’re best turning to Rocky IV. If you’re looking for visceral, exciting and blood-pumping duels, you’re best turning to Creed. If you’re looking for in-the-ring matches that exist more to supplement the story than to perk up an audience with fist-pumping action, you’ve found Bleed For This. With a surplus of boxing films available, it’s not hard to find a film boxing that’s both technically better and more visually appealing – so says someone who has seen a total of one real life boxing match in its entirety – but the fights here feel almost obligatory, an obvious necessity birthed out of the lifelong profession of the film’s protagonist. (It’s like making Sully or Jersey Boys with no flying or singing scenes). The boxing matches, aside from their narrative importance, emphasize the lengths Vinny has gone to and are representative of his recovered physical prowess and unmatched pertinacity – on their own, the fights are nothing special. As part of a solid, well-told story, the physical battles are entertaining enough – but it’s Vinny’s basement workouts, his surgeries (including a chair-gripping Halo removal that elicited audible gasps from a packed theater), and his 13 month fight back to recovery that serve as the standouts and which make Bleed For This a dynamic and inspiring win.
Bleed For This has an iron jaw; even if it momentarily missteps with genre tropes or cliches, this heavyweight sport drama rarely falters – much less hits the mat. A compelling, emotional powerhouse with a healthy and surprisingly playful sense of humor, Bleed For This is the greatest comeback in sports – and can stand proudly, its held head firmly high, as one of the great sports movies and among the best films of the year. “I think people are gonna be able to relate to it and I know people are gonna be inspired by it,” Miles Teller shared exclusively with Red Carpet Refs. “[Vinny] just never quit.” Bleed For This is now playing.
Bleed For This: 4.5/5
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