×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Bleed for This’

Miles Teller brings the intensity of 'Whiplash' to the boxing arena in this true story of Vinny Pazienza, who didn't let a broken neck stop him from fighting.

With:
Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Katey Sagal, Ciarán Hinds, Ted Levine, Jordan Gelber, Amanda Clayton, Daniel Sauli, Christine Evangelista, Tina Casciani, Liz Carey, Denise Shaefer. (English, French dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1620935/

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.

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Bleed for This'

Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 2, 2016. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentations.) Running time: 116 MIN.

Production: An Open Road release, presented with Magna Entertainment, in association with Sikelia Prods., Verdi Prods., Bruce Cohen Prods., Younger Than You Prods., Solution Entertainment Group. Producers: Bruce Cohen, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Chad A. Verdi, Noah Kraft, Ben Younger, Pamela Thur. Executive producers: Martin Scorsese, Joshua Sason, Michelle Verdi, Myles Nestel, Lisa Wilson.

Crew: Director, writer: Ben Younger. Story: Pippa Bianco, Angelo Pizzo. Camera (color), Larkin Seiple. Editor, Zachary Stuart-Pontier.

With: Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Katey Sagal, Ciarán Hinds, Ted Levine, Jordan Gelber, Amanda Clayton, Daniel Sauli, Christine Evangelista, Tina Casciani, Liz Carey, Denise Shaefer. (English, French dialogue)

More Film

  • 'Sound of Metal' Review: Riz Ahmed

    Toronto Film Review: 'Sound of Metal'

    “Sound of Metal” is a film with a potent, searing hook. It stars Riz Ahmed, who is such a sensational actor (just watch him in “Jason Bourne” or “Nightcrawler” or “The Sisters Brothers”), as Ruben, a punk-metal drummer, heavy on the tattoos and peroxide, who has been thrashing away as part of a caterwauling noise [...]

  • David Goodman

    WGA West's David Goodman on Agency Strategy: 'We'll Start Meeting as Soon as Possible'

    David Goodman, who was resoundingly re-elected president of the Writers Guild of America West on Monday, said the guild plans to meet with several talent agencies soon in an effort to ease the impasse over packaging fees and affiliated production. “Many agencies had indicated that they wanted to wait to see the results of the [...]

  • Australian Outback

    Legend Media Seeks Trio of West Australia-China Co-Productions (EXCLUSIVE)

    Perth, Australia-based production company Legend Media is preparing a slate of three feature films to be produced with partners in China. The company styles itself as one that recognizes the opportunities for Asian engagement that have fallen to Australia, through geography, trade and culture. The company aims to make use of the bilateral film co-production [...]

  • David Goodman

    David Goodman Re-Elected President of Writers Guild of America West

    David Goodman has been convincingly re-elected to a two-year term as president of the Writers Guild of America West, beating Phyllis Nagy in a bitter contest that became a referendum on the guild’s ongoing battle with talent agents. Goodman received 4,395 votes to Nagy’s 1,282 in an election that yielded record turnout among the WGA [...]

  • Issa Rae Portrait

    Issa Rae Developing Re-Imagining of Crime Thriller 'Set It Off'

    “Insecure” star and co-creator Issa Rae is in early development on a re-imagining of New Line’s crime thriller “Set If Off,” which starred Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica Fox and Kimberly Elise. Rae will produce with plans to star in the project. Syreeta Singleton and Nina Gloster have been hired to pen the script. [...]

  • Thomas Golubic GMS Conference

    Guild of Music Supervisors President: 'The Economics of the Job Don't Work Anymore'

    The Guild of Music Supervisors (GMS) hosted its 5th annual “State of Music in Media” conference on Saturday, Sept. 15, at the Los Angeles Film School. Featuring a wide array of panel discussions on all manner of issues related to music in film, television and advertising, the confab drew top composers, music supervisors, licensing and [...]

  • Gay Chorus Deep South

    Film News Roundup: Documentary 'Gay Chorus Deep South' Bought for Awards Season Release

    In today’s film news roundup, the documentaries “Gay Chorus Deep South” and “Tread” find homes, Tobin Bell’s latest horror film completes production and Emilio Insolera joins “355.” ACQUISITIONS MTV Documentary Films has acquired “Gay Chorus Deep South” for release during the fall for awards season consideration. Directed by David Charles Rodrigues, the film world premiered [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content