Next month, Rocky turns 40 years old. It’s hard to believe we’re four decades removed from John G. Avildsen and Sylvester Stallone’s Academy Award-winning boxing drama, but the years are easier to stomach when you actually consider how many similarly acclaimed titles have followed the Italian Stallion up those steps. Since then, we’ve seen 1980’s Raging Bull, 1999’s The Hurricane, 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, 2005’s Cinderella Man, 2010’s The Fighter, and six more Rocky films (including Ryan Coogler’s Creed). That’s without mentioning the B-level fluff, too, from this year’s forgettable Hands of Stone to last year’s already forgotten Southpaw to the great beyond of mediocrity consisting of late-hour cash grabs (see: Grudge Match) and Meg Ryan as a coach (see: Against the Ropes). None of this is really surprising; after all, when something obliterates the box office and impresses critics, as Rocky did back in 1976, Hollywood will milk the thing until it turns to dust. But, as you can see from the range of impressive films above, the genre has endured over time, namely because those filmmakers remembered the most important rule of the match: A boxing movie is only as great as its story outside the ring.
To his credit, filmmaker Ben Younger has one hell of a story on his hands with Bleed for This. It’s based on the true life tale of former world champion boxer Vinny Pazienza, who refused to retire from the sport, even after he suffered a near-fatal spinal injury from a serious car accident, and became the second fighter in boxing history to win both the lightweight and junior middleweight world championships. It’s an interesting narrative that should arguably be turned into a film, one that deserves a spot in the never-ending glut of boxing dramas. What’s more, Younger also nabbed an inspired cast in Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Katey Sagal, Ciarán Hinds, and Ted Levine. The problem is that, for all its charms (and there are some), Bleed for This never finds its own identity, pulling its punches with regards to character development and eschewing any sense of a nuance for plot-driving tropes — there’s the rise, the fall, the montage, and the win. Despite Pazienza’s own pitfalls and perils, the film never registers as anything more than a boilerplate boxing drama, which is a shame because the material is all there, it’s just hamstrung by a flimsy screenplay that refuses to let its characters exist on their own.
But they try, especially Teller and Eckhart. Both actors are coming off a series of lows themselves and there’s a gravitas to their performances that speaks to this reality. Teller still hasn’t found the right post-Whiplash role, having slummed it through miserable DTV rom-coms (Get a Job, Two Night Stand), piss-poor popcorn fare (Insurgent, Fantastic Four), and straight-up misfires (War Dogs), but he’s alive as Pazienza, echoing his muscular turn in Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-nominated debut. The guy does some heavy lifting here, both literally and figuratively, and he truly shines midway through, around the time when Pazienza starts prepping his post-traumatic comeback. There’s one scene, late into the second act, when the doctor removes his halo, and his reactions are so livid and so real — it’s great stuff. As for Eckhart, who plays his down-on-his-luck trainer Kevin Rooney, there’s a certain pathos to his role that stems from the simple fact that he’s really the only salient figurehead for a good two-thirds of the film. Sadly, he’s straddled with this addiction narrative that falls through, but you can see Eckhart rise above the material and, along with his turn in this year’s Sully, it’s nice to have him back.
That leaves Younger. In hindsight, the 44-year-old filmmaker likely sees Bleed for This as a comeback of sorts himself. His last film, 2005’s Prime, managed to charm the box office, but also left critics cold, disappointing those who thought he might be on to something after he turned heads with 2000’s surprise hit crime drama, Boiler Room. So, there’s something to be said about this particular film and how Pazienza’s narrative parallels the talent at hand. Much like Teller and Eckhart, Younger tries his darnedest, too, and you can see it in a few of his more stylistic decisions, from the silent, intimate portraits that open the film to the way he attempts to stay at an arm’s length from the actual narrative to a couple of riveting moments during the final match. Still, he often leans heavily on motifs from past boxing dramas and sometimes during the exact same scenes; for instance, Coogler would probably smirk at the mini-montage that rushes through Pazienza’s head before he comes back swinging. It’s orchestrated the same exact way as Creed and arrives right at the same time … and this is supposed to be The Big Moment. Sure, it’s rousing and hits the soul in the right way, but it doesn’t feel earned — and that’s a big problem when you’re trying to knock us out.
It’s just not that simple anymore.