Miles Teller knows what it’s like to take a beating, having followed up his career-making performance in Whiplash with the ill-conceived and universally panned Fantastic Four remake.
But bad reviews in the press are nothing compared to what Teller endures in Bleed For This, the true story of prize-winning fighter Vinny Pazienza, who came back after a near-fatal car crash and a broken neck to live another day in the boxing ring.
The first half of the film shows Pazienza — “The Pazmanian Devil” — at his cocky best, loud and living a life of excess in and out of the ring after two world title fights. The revolving door of girls and excessive gambling are only mildly tempered by the struggle to stay within his 140-pound-and-under weight class. Vinny could duck and weave with the best of them, but the one hit he didn’t see coming was a collision with a car that crossed the centre line and hit him head-on. Doctors offer to fuse his spine: surgery that would guarantee he walks again, but also means he’ll never fight again. “One bump, one fall… and your spinal cord could sever,” doctors caution. Vinny refuses.
It’s a long and painful recovery involving six months in a cage-like halo brace. And if the brutal fight scenes aren’t enough to make you squirm, the scenes of bloody screws being thumbed into Vinny’s skull surely will. Yet Vinny soldiers on with the help of his colourful Rhode Island family: supportive dad (Ciaran Hinds) and mom Louise (Katey Sagal), who can’t bring herself to watch her son’s fights and is never off of her knees praying.
Nearly unrecognizable is Aaron Eckhart as Kevin Rooney, Vinny’s beer-bellied, balding coach. The role is worlds away from the buttoned-up characters Eckhart usually plays, but he is superb as the man who pleads, cajoles and sometimes bullies Vinny back to fighting form.
David O. Russell’s The Fighter similarly explored the blue-collar family dynamics of a boxer, and there are moments here when it feels like the filmmakers went a little heavy on the set décor and the Aqua Net hairspray. The film best succeeds when it focuses on the relationship between Vinny and Kevin; we know the familiar boxing film story arc of rock-bottom to redemption in the ring, so the performances between the lead actors is key.
Vinny straddled — and won — in three different weight categories, so Teller had to slim down and beef up accordingly. His commitment to the role is evident, and Teller pulls no punches, fighting just as vigorously as he took to drumming in Whiplash. Oscar talk for Teller may be premature; Eckhart turns in a stronger performance.
Bleed For This is a comeback of sorts for director Ben Younger, too, who was the talk of Hollywood after winning a spate of awards for his first feature, Boiler Room, but who hasn’t had a film since 2005’s Prime. There’s enough energy and dashes of innovation amidst a tired trope here to nudge him back into the spotlight.
Bleed For This screens at International Village.