Bleed for This has no right to be any good (it is, but we’ll get to that). Like Miles Teller’s face, the concept is easy to make fun of. Do they not have any Italian actors in Hollywood? Bleed for This depicts the life of boxer Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza†, a guy so Italian the turning point of the film is a Camaro crash on the way to a casino. And they got MILES TELLER to play him. (His father, meanwhile, is played by noted Irishman Ciaran Hinds.) That’s up there with Jack O’Connell playing Louis Zamperini in Unbroken in the pantheon of cinematic insults to Italian-Americans. Moreover, did we really need another movie about a white boxer?
Prior to Bleed for This, I would’ve said no, unequivocally, we do not. After seeing Bleed for This, I think… maybe we did? After all, Vinny Paz is a guy who broke his neck, was told he might never walk again, and then 13 months later fought Roberto Freakin’ Duran (about whom they made another bad boxing movie just a few weeks ago). Executive producer Martin Scorsese called Paz’s tale “the best story never told,” according to writer/director Ben Younger. And truly, the truism “I need to see another white boxing movie like I need a hole in the head” feels less true when you’re watching Vinny Paz have holes drilled into his head.
Is depicting a true story a defense against derivativeness? Perhaps. But to be sure, we’ve seen a lot of this before. Da blue collah boxah wit a kooky fambly (an Italian-American from Rhode Island this time, rather than an Irish-American from Massachusetts), the alcoholic trainer looking for one last shot at redemption, the protagonist everyone counted out who succeeds with the odds stacked against him, the tacky girlfriends, the tacky sisters, the gold crucifixes and plaid couches. Bleed for This has all of that. And who plays Paz’s trainer, Kevin Rooney (an associate of Cus D’Amato and famed coach of Mike Tyson before Don King got him fired before the Spinks fight)? Why, Aaron Eckhart of course. Because when I think “fat, bald, pug-faced Staten Island boxing trainer,” I think “human Ken doll with Spartacus chin Aaron Eckhart.” Classic Hollywood move. Why hire a bald fat guy to play a bald fat guy when you can have a beautiful person shave part of their head and pooch their stomach out a little? He probably got paid in potential Oscar chances.
This Ben Younger though, his movies are fun as hell, even if they’re not entirely fresh. Having previously directed Boiler Room and Prime, he’s been out of the game for more than a decade. Introducing the movie at TIFF, Younger explained why he came back to directing after being away for so long by quoting Vinny Paz himself: “I just can’t not do this.”
This before he told a story about being frazzled as his movie wasn’t coming together, and sitting down to dinner with his parents, who had liquidated their 401Ks to give him $100,000 to finish the one more day of shooting he thought he needed. It was a great story — funny, seemingly off the cuff, with a beginning, middle, and end — and Younger had the audience eating out of his hand. The guy is likable as hell. I remembered thinking the same thing 11 years ago, watching him introduce Prime at the San Diego Film Festival. Younger has this inherent charm, a personal magnetism that seems to come through in his characters. The same way you can kind of tell that Aaron Sorkin and Oliver Stone are smug pricks — even knowing nothing about them personally, just from the way their characters talk — Younger’s characters exude a certain geniality. It makes for a pleasant watch.
Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t make a few poor choices. How many times do we need movies to attempt it before we finally admit that movie boxing looks super fake? Miles Teller was clearly chosen for his acting talent and not his boxing ability — which is a good thing, mostly, because Teller totally pulls off a role he’s comically miscast for. He has Russell Brand’s ability to be understated when you least expect it and leave you feeling begrudgingly positive about him.
Sad though, that he had to try to box, because his punches are awkward, elbows-inward slappy things, that clearly land a foot away from anyone’s face in all the wide shots. Which is sadly par for the course for boxing movies, even the good ones (like The Fighter). To its credit, Bleed For This takes the genre baby steps forward, occasionally mixing in some archival footage of the real Vinny Paz and trusting the audience not to freak out, though never during the climactic fights. We’re so close now! One of these days someone’s finally going to use real boxing footage in a boxer biopic so the fights don’t look like a bad WWE ladder match. That’s a day I will be happy, if I haven’t died yet. In any case, I suppose that still puts Bleed for This slightly ahead of the curve.
More often, Younger puts just enough of a twist on the expected to keep things enjoyable. In one of the early scenes, Vinny Paz, fresh from the blackjack tables the night before, makes his walkout before his fight with Roger Mayweather. As he moves down the corridor flanked by his trashy girlfriend, we get your usual, slow-motion, cool-guy-walkin’ scene we’ve seen umpteen times before. That is, until Paz’s girlfriend trips over his silly robe in her giant heels and topples to the floor, still in slow motion.
I didn’t spend much time describing the plot, because I think we’ve all seen a boxer biopic by now. He shows potential, succeeds, gets knocked down by circumstance, then makes a triumphant comeback. It’s entirely fair to call Bleed for This an Italian-face The Fighter with spinal injuries. But in Ben Younger’s hands, it’s also so effortlessly entertaining that you leave understanding why there are so many boxer biopics, rather than groaning wishing there were less.