If there is something new to be said about boxing in a movie, Bleed for This does not find it. If there is something new to be said about incredible true-life tales of survival, Bleed for This does not find it. Does Our Hero defy the odds? He does. Does he climb his way back to success and make an unlikely comeback that nobody but nobody could ever have imagined? You bet. Does the human spirit triumph? Of course it does. And you know what? None of that should matter. Predictability is practically a requirement for (would-be) feel-good sports movies like this one. And yet the good ones let us share in the trials and the tribulations, let us genuinely feel in our bones how hard-won the victories are. But Bleed for This doesn’t bleed, and it doesn’t make us bleed. It doesn’t inflict the tiniest emotional scratch.
All of this is a particular mystery: the true story of late-1980s, early-90s champion boxer Vinny Pazienza should be effortlessly inspiring. There would probably have been more than enough fodder for a reasonably engaging film if it had only been about how he fought — and won titles! — in three different weight classes. But that pales into comparison next to the real meat of his tale. After a terrible car crash in which he broke his neck, Pazienza was told he might never walk again, and boxing was completely out of the question unless he wanted to actually die in the ring. And still, he made a full recovery — though always with the increased chance of a fresh injury doing him in — and went back to competing and won more titles.
This is what must be made perfectly clear about Bleed for This: here is a movie in which the protagonist spends half the running time in one of those science-fiction-looking medical halos, you know, the contraption they screw into your skull, to keep his head immobile so his spine can heal. This is inherently dramatic and dangerous and astonishing and sort of horrifically wondrous, and hence hugely cinematic. It’s also something that I cannot recall ever seeing before on the big screen, certainly not in a way so central to the story. The idea of it feels very early-80s junky TV movie-of-the-week melodrama, though, so maybe this has been a thing in one of those.
Or, at least, this is a notion that should be all those good storytelling things. And yet it still feels like we’ve seen everything here before, every beat old hat, every up-and-down nothing but cliché. (Oh, look: here’s Pazienza hangin’ out in a strip club… wearing his halo.) The hurdles before Pazienza are somehow entirely similar to the hurdles every other movie boxer has ever faced, except this time, we just cannot be incited to care. Somehow, writer and director Ben Younger — in his first movie since his horribly miscalculated 2005 romantic comedy Prime — has managed to suck all the emotional energy out of what should have been a can’t-miss. It’s not even emotional in a phony way, like my imaginary 80s TV melodrama would be. (Younger got an assist on the screenplay from Pippa Bianco, making her feature debut, and Angelo Pizzo, who wrote and directed the even more terrible true-life sports movie My All American, which also completely fails to engage on a human level.)
Perhaps Younger’s worst decision was casting Miles Teller as Pazienza, because the director clearly doesn’t know how to harness the persona of assholishness that Teller has cultivated onscreen. From the obnoxious teenage alcoholic in The Spectacular Now to the obsessively driven music student of Whiplash, it’s plain that Teller has what it takes to sell us unlikeable characters who verge on abusing themselves to desperate, almost savage degrees, which is precisely what the central role here demands. But the Pazienza here is lacking this: he’s just a selfish jerk who ropes others — such as his trainer, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart: London Has Fallen, I, Frankenstein) — into helping him risk his life, and taunts his poor parents, Louise (Katey Sagal: Pitch Perfect 2, Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder) and Angelo (Ciarán Hinds: Hitman: Agent 47, Frozen), with his courting of death.
At worst, the film squanders the talents of good actors, burying them under mounds of makeup so that they’re unrecognizable, and forces them into a sort of caricature of 80s/90s working-class Providence: the place and the period feels more like an over-the-top pantomime than reality. At best, the film unintentionally highlights the insanity of a “sport” that’s about nothing more than men beating the crap out of each other, what with Pazienza’s fragile body a punch away from death. A good boxing film finds a beauty and a grace in the sport that overcomes even pacifist skepticism. This one is not able to do that.
viewed during the 60th BFI London Film Festival