Boxing isn’t just about being able to throw a good punch; it’s as much about how you take the blows that come your way. In the case of Vinny Pazienza, the hit he didn’t see coming happened outside the ring, when a head-on car accident left him with a broken neck and minimal chances of ever walking again, let alone fighting. And yet he refused to throw in the towel.
A comeback story within a comeback story, “Bleed for This” stars Miles Teller as the boxer who simply wouldn’t quit — the “Pazmanian Devil” who agreed to wear a painful halo brace for six months in hopes that he might heal enough to defend his middleweight world championship. Teller is terrific, which should come as no surprise to “Whiplash” fans, though no less significant, the film represents a successful return for writer-director Ben Younger, the once-hot “Boiler Room” auteur in whom Hollywood seems to have lost interest. Younger hadn’t made a feature since 2005’s “Prime,” but here finds a piece of material that’s a great fit for his macho, high-energy style — and could be the biggest hit of his career.
Still, all eyes are on Teller in a role that powerfully reinforces what a charismatic performer he is. Whether pummeling an opponent in the ring or flirting with any woman who crosses his path (the ones on his arm change regularly enough), Pazienza is a larger-than-life character. He’s an over-psyched loudmouth who never knows when to stop — which is as equally clear in sparring matches as it is at the blackjack tables — and yet he can credit that tenacity for his success. His obsessive personality is apparent enough from the opening scene, in which he swaddles himself in Saran Wrap and hits the exercise bike in a desperate attempt to shed the last few pounds before his weigh-in.
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With Martin Scorsese in his corner as an executive producer, Younger has created a film that, like “Raging Bull,” offers its actors a chance to prove their commitment via dramatic physical transformations. There’s Pazienza, of course, who spans three weight classes over the course of the film — from a thong-clad 140 pounds up to the meatier mid-160s after his accident. No less impressive is Aaron Eckhart, virtually unrecognizable as Kevin Rooney, the balding, pot-bellied boxing coach who not only trained Mike Tyson, but convinced Pazienza to fight at his natural weight, psyching him into extending a career that three straight losses had practically cut short.
The first half of the movie concerns itself with establishing what a dedicated, if obstinate sportsman Pazienza could be, building up to the title bout with middleweight champion Gilbert Dele. Shortly after winning that belt, fate dealt Pazienza a nasty blow. Being driven in a sports car on his way to a casino, the boxer barely has time to register the danger as a vehicle veers out of its lane and slams into them. Pazienza had spent plenty of time in emergency rooms prior to his accident, but had started to think himself invincible. Now, he has humility foisted upon him, forced to sleep in a bed set up in the family living room — which is nearly as big an obstacle to his libido as the elaborate halo contraption covering his chest and head (though he eventually finds a new girlfriend who kinda digs it: “It’s like braces times 1,000,” she says).
The operation itself is a grisly ordeal that involves tightening giant metal screws directly into the boxer’s skull, and Younger milks the macabre procedure for all its worth — yet it’s the halo’s removal half a year later, with no anesthesia or sedative, that really gets us squirming. As in “Boiler Room,” Younger has found a way to channel his characters’ cockiness directly into the film’s style, resulting in a movie that’s aggressively shot and edited with frequent scenes that follow Pazienza into strip clubs and casinos, even after he’s injured. Still, everyone’s attitude toward him changes, with other boxers refusing to fight him even after he’s healed. No one wants to be the guy who broke Pazienza’s neck, though the promise that it could happen adds a level of macabre suspense to the film’s final act.
Though every boxing movie since “Raging Bull” owes Scorsese some measure of gratitude, “Bleed for This” actually borrows more from David O. Russell’s “The Fighter.” Clearly inspired by that film’s wild energy and near-feral depiction of its central family, Younger elevates Pazienza’s eccentric Rhode Island clan almost to the point of caricature, with their big hair, wacky home furnishings, and quarrelsome chemistry. The camera simply can’t sit still when watching its agitated protagonist, his high-pressure dad (Ciarán Hinds, who can bellow with the best of them), foul-mouthed sister Doreen (Amanda Clayton), and superstitious mom Louise (Katey Sagal) — all of them looking like contenders in a bad-’80s-hair contest (another Russell-esque affectation).
Pazienza lives at home, a set decorator’s dream (this one entrusted to Kim Leoleis), with its oppressive mix of ceramic elephant statues and Catholic iconography. Though his mother (Katey Sagal) can’t bring herself to watch any of her son’s matches — she prefers to spend her time praying — Younger doesn’t dare deprive us of the spectacle, recreating historical matches with the same nail-biting tension they would have inspired live. Even so, the bouts in the ring aren’t nearly as compelling as the battle Pazienza is waging in his own head, and Teller takes us there, past the bruises and facial scars (makeup mixed with his own), to reveal the fire behind the fighter.