Nostalgic For Nostalgia? The White Boxer Biopic Eats Its Own Tail In ‘Chuck’

Senior Editor
05.11.17 12 Comments

IFC Films

Near the end of Chuck, we hear a voiceover of Chuck Wepner saying “See? Sometimes life really is like a movie.”

Which is joke, because a lot of movie characters say that. But in this case it’s even more literally true, if that’s possible, because Chuck Wepner is the guy who Rocky was about, who then tried to consciously emulate Rocky, and now we’re watching a movie of that guy they made a movie about who then tried to be like a movie and ended up spawning another movie. See what I’m getting at here? Chuck is kind of like the Xzibit meme of boxing movies. Yo, dawg! We heard you like boxing movies, so we put a boxing movie in your boxing movie so you could watch a boxing movie while you watch a boxing movie!

Here’s a rough timeline: Chuck Wepner went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali in 1975 and even scored a sort-of knockdown†. Sly Stallone made a movie about it, sort of (which wasn’t entirely unlike Raging Bull, which was about another working class white guy who went the distance with a different black legend, Sugar Ray Robinson, and even scored a knockdown), which spawned six direct sequels and countless imitators. Then there was a 30 For 30 documentary about Wepner called “The Real Rocky” (directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, who has a co-writing credit on Chuck). And now we have Chuck, a strange attempt to go back and tell us the story of the same Chuck Wepner, who, as he tells us in Chuck’s opening voice over, “You don’t think you know me, but you know me.”

Oh boy, do we ever. Which raises the obvious question: Why do we need two (at least) movies about Chuck Wepner, and two (at least) about Jake LaMotta (not to mention movies about Vinny Pazienza, Mickey Ward, Eminem, etc), when we still haven’t gotten around to making that Sugar Ray Robinson movie? Moreover, what is it that’s so much more fascinating about the working class Irish or Italian boxer who has marital troubles and a difficult relationship with his brother etc etc, who’s a footnote in the larger story of a black legend, than the black legends themselves? Why do we keep making this movie?

Chuck comes tantalizingly close to actually trying to answer that question before falling back into familiar patterns. Liev Schreiber plays Chuck Wepner, the “Bayonne Bleeder,” who has all the requisite elements of the white boxing movie protagonist — blue collar accent, underworld connections (he starts as a loan collector, but he’s too nice), complicated family relationship (his estranged brother, played by Michael Rapaport), tough-gal and tacky love interests (Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts), flamboyant greaseball trainer (Ron Perlman), a fancy car (a Cadillac with a personalized license plate), a lovable schlub personality, and an eventual taste for drugs and adultery.

But Wepner also loves the movie Requiem for a Heavyweight, starring Anthony Quinn as a washed up prizefighter who tells a recruiter “Mountain Rivera was number five in the world” as he tries and fails to get a job. Wepner (who would go on to be ranked 8th when he fought Ali) loves the movie, and quotes it constantly. “It breaks your heart,” Wepner says.

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