Running Time: 117m
Director: Ben Younger
Cast: Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Katey Sagal, Ciarán Hinds
(Movie House, City Side, Thursday 25th November)
The inspirational story of World Champion Boxer Vinny Pazienza who, after a near fatal car crash which left him not knowing if he’d ever walk again, made one of sport’s most incredible comebacks.
At the recommendation of Banterflix big boss, I decided to step out of my comfort zone a little and tackle an entirely different genre from what I usually watch. Knowing little about boxing and nothing about the featured boxer, I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Italian-American scrappy underdog tale is pretty much a well-played trope by this point thanks to Rocky et al, so I didn’t get my hopes up.
Director Ben Younger (Boiler Room, Prime) impresses with his first feature in 11 years. Bleed For This tells the true story of Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller), a successful Rhode Island, USA based, lightweight/middleweight boxer. This biopic, set in the late-80’s and early-90’s, moves along quickly and rarely drags, and manages to be both hard-hitting and heart-warming. The ups and downs of Pazienza’s career are documented neatly and not dwelled upon, as this movie, like the boxer it portrays, just keeps moving forward.
During something of a career lull, Pazienza teams up with former Mike Tyson trainer, Kevin Rooney, played by a paunchy, balding Aaron Eckhart, and with support from his family, endures the trials of the tough world of boxing. A victim of a serious car-crash in real life, Miles Teller is well cast, and portrays Pazienza as likeable, with just enough of a cocky swagger and plenty of heart. His broken nose also looked the part (though I can’t confirm whether he went to DeNiro in Raging Bull extremes to achieve the desired effect).
The scenes set in the Pazienza home are cosy and comforting, and the performances of Katey Sagal as his mother, Louise, and Ciarán Hinds as his father, Angelo, were really relatable. Both helped illustrate how tough it must be to be simultaneously proud of your son excelling in his chosen field, yet constantly worrying as someone batters the head off him on live TV for money. The warmth and security of his family life is well visualised in the amber tinged light of home scenes, contrasting with the icier palette of the scenes featuring his cold-hearted promoters Lou and Dan & Duva (Ted Levine and Jordan Gelber). The Pazienza home is all steaming plates of spaghetti, the Duvas are all cold winter breath.
Hinds in particular had me puzzled for the first part of the movie, as I racked my brain as to which mobster movie I recognised him from. It must have been an impressive audition from the Belfast man, as I’m sure the casting directors had to fend off any number of ex-Sopranos alumni. His tough yet likeable nature translates well to the screen, as ever, and he does manage to tug the heartstrings in a few teary-eyed moments.
Vinny’s lowest point comes, as you may guess from the synopsis, when he breaks his neck in a nasty car crash which elicited a genuine gasp from the audience. The slick directorial style, consisting of some really satisfying drive-by camera shots, up until this point had moved so smoothly that it seemed Vinny could just duck, dive and dodge any adversity. This style gave Bleed for This a real sense of life constantly moving and not waiting for anyone, however successful they may be. The use of flashbacks and intercutting scenes of the real Vinny Paz were also nice touches that helped remind you this was a true story and not another Hollywood fable.
One other stylish detail was that his matches and his hospital ordeals both had on-screen intertitles – each one showing how hard Vinny had to fight both in and out of the ring – one particularly grisly hospital scene was even harder to watch than the fights themselves. The use of sound in the matches was also excellent; huge, thumping punching sounds and neat uses of silence really added a lot to the atmosphere.
Not knowing the actual backstory of Pazienza, I was genuinely gripped. Would this fall into the Rocky mould of triumph over adversity, or would it be another Million Dollar Baby downer? This was definitely a much more interesting way to find out what happened rather than a quick glance at Wikipedia. I’ll not say too much for those who don’t know the history, but I will say, Bleed For This was really inspiring without ever feeling corny, mainly due to the fact it is based on a barely believable true story.
Fans of combat sports and boxing movies will likely love this (perhaps as a companion piece to the 2016 Robert Duran movie, Hands of Stone), and those looking a good, non-TV movie standard biopic will likely enjoy it – the direction has a cool, big-budget feel without ever becoming Hollywood schmaltz. Well-acted, stylish and touching, and in spite of a few unavoidable clichés, Bleed for This is a winner by unanimous decision.