Film review of Bleed For This, the real life story of boxer Vinny Pazienza and his fight to get back in the ring after a car accident left him with a broken neck. Starring Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart. Directed by Ben Younger.
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Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza, (Miles Teller) is a boxing champion who, despite obvious talent as a fighter, lacks the discipline to turn that into a lucrative career. He is on the cusp of a big break when a car crash leaves him with a broken neck and needing to wear a spinal ‘halo’ until his body heals. Determined to continue his sport, he works with trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart) on the quiet so his parents don’t suspect to get back in the ring.
Review, by Jason Day
I’m rather liking the preview screenings my local Cineworld is scheduling of late. With a full-time day job, it makes meeting the Friday night deadline for review submissions that much easier to make.
I’ve also noticed that the previews generally don’t feature adverts. For this film, we had the added pleasure of no trailers either. The bliss!
That seems a little ironic, considering how heavily Bleed For This has been trailed over the past weeks, whetting my appetite for the sports genre, one I usually have littler care for.
Whetted because the film stars one of the actors of the moment and a personal favourite, Miles Teller, in the bog-standard boxing film role of the troubled underdog who must battle his way to reclaim his place at the top of the pugilists. If anyone can dazzle an audience in such a ‘by the numbers’ part its Teller, so my cine-radar instantly started pinging.
But that was just the trailer, judiciously edited as they are to market the piece widely and entice the punters in. I was one and thankfully, the film lived up to the hype.
The mark of a good movie is in the first scene. Like an efficient playground bully, these images need to grab our interest by the scruff of the neck, lift us up so it faces us directly and gives us a damn good shaking to leave us trembling about what is next.
The opening shots here are a collection of disparate closeups at a press conference for Vinny’s weighing in, as assembled sports hacks wait for the main man to arrive: well-shined shoes tap impatiently. Vinny’s promoter’s wig rests obviously over his ears. A necklace of the Hebrew image for life glints in the harsh lights.
The last is a foreboding and ironic symbol for a man whose physical vigour will soon be taken, but this lifeline motif recurs. Teller is knocked out during a match and the sound of the judge’s microphone screeches infinitely like an ECG flatlining, linking us to a hospital trip.
Throughout the film, smooth tracking shots at various heights mirror this, one swooping over the wrecked car that almost kills Vinnie, the horn blaring obtrusively.
There are more subtle touches about the film, such as the protagonists pre-fight rituals: Vinny having his hands bound as his father meticulously combs his hair. His mother lights candles at her make-shift shrine to the many natty statuettes of Jesus and photos of her son, crossing herself and tugging at her rosary.
I mentioned earlier that the sport genre is one have hitherto given little attention to (total films reviews: 01). I’m not a sports fan anyway, spending an unhealthy amount of time in dark rooms watching movies (total films reviewed: 270), their cliches seeming irrelevant and even more conspicuous (for there are different cliches in every genre of film).
Boxing films have the most obvious cliches in sport films and Bleed For This is no different to any of its Rocky like forbears. A hotshot wannabe fighter no one thinks will win; a pushy male relative with dollar signs flashing before his eyes; a woman who can’t bear to watch our hero fight; an older, washed-up trainer on the periphery of this exclusive masculine world who must redeem himself and face up to his own failures by helping the hero win; some bizarre, pummelling but ingenious workout sequences and a big-bash finale, with in your face fisticuffs at a glitzy location, where our hero eventually triumphs.
No spoiler alert is necessary for that final point. Even if one is not vaguely acquainted with the Panziena story, you will know what the ending to the film is before the title credits have finished rolling.
The reason why Bleed For This knocks the hell out of any other boxing film before it is that director Younger, while acknowledging those cliches, is able to move on from them and fashion a film that doesn’t get snagged up in them.
Bleed For This has the same raw, intense and punchy feel as other great boxing films but Younger tackles the congenital pitfalls in the DNA of the boxing film head, paying due respect but only lip service to those cliches and gets on with the job of crafting a solid, exciting and incredibly well acted film.
Eschewing any emotional fripperies (warning for the squeamish – prepare for painful scenes of cranial DIY), Younger crams the film with gripping fight scenes and pugnacious performances from a mostly male cast.
An almost unrecognisable Ted Levine nearly chews his own face off as Vinny’s gummy promoter Lou Duva. Ciaran Hinds peacocks in glorious style as Vinny’s foul-mouthed, brash father.
Echart, in keeping with the film’s spare tone, plumps for a head of reality and shaves off part of his as Vinny’s boozy trainer. It’s a great role for a character actor to work with (Burgess Meredith won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the same turn in Rocky) and, with a high-pitched voice, paunch and combative performance, he plays to the hilt.
Despite such bellicose company, Teller still steals the film as the stubborn slugger. Although Younger doesn’t allow any flowery emotions to intrude on the action, the film is none the less full of feeling that his lead actor puts in.
Whether as the cocky punk gambling and boozing before a match or as the world’s worse patient ignoring doctors orders and torturing himself and those around him in the process, he proves once again why he’s an actor you can’t take easily take your eyes off.
This makes hard work for a film critic (I doubt I’ve ever written so many notes during a screening) but it’s nothing compared to the over-time Teller puts in here and which helps a very good film punch even further above its weight.
For more, see the trailer on the official website.
Cast & credits
Director: Ben Younger. 117mins. Icon/Verdi/Magna/Bruce Cohen/Sikelia/Younger Than You. (15)
Producers: Bruce Cohen, Pamela Thur, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Chad A. Verdi, Ben Younger.
Writer: Ben Younger.
Camera: Larkin Seiple.
Music: Julia Holter.
Sets: Kay Lee.
Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Katey Segal, Ciaran Hinds, Ted Levine, Jordan Gelber, Amanda Clayton, Amanda Clayton, Daniel Sauli.