Vinny Pazienza made one of the greatest comebacks in sports history, overcoming a broken neck to continue a successful boxing career. That comeback included fights with Roberto Duran, the subject of Hands of Stone, another boxing bio from earlier this year. Their “Duel in the Desert” is fodder for one of many timeworn conventions in Bleed for This, a tale of redemption that’s unique because of its protagonist’s struggle, but doesn’t quite shake the feeling of familiarity.
If Bleed for This were pitted against Hands of Stone in a brawl of biopics, it would win by points, barely, thanks to strong performances and some uncommon tension surrounding Pazienza’s injury. The rest is just connect-the-dots tradition.
The film starts with a valley, as Pazienza (Miles Teller) loses a 1988 title bout after struggling to cut weight. Many think he’s washed up, and he’s farmed out to alcoholic trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart). The misfits click, each sensing a second chance, and Rooney reinvigorates “The Pazmanian Devil” by moving him up in weight class. This first rebirth is short-lived. After a horrific car crash, Pazienza is left with a halo screwed into his skull to hold a broken neck in place. He vows to fight again against everyone’s urgings.
Teller brings the same dogged determination to the ring that he brought to the drum kit in Whiplash, this time with a little more pizzazz that’s fun to watch. Vinny’s no saint – he’s a gambler and frustratingly stubborn – but he’s never unlikable. His string of lady friends is an amusing running gag, with new girls popping up in various scenes with no explanation or relationship drama. Turns out using several disposable girlfriends works just as well, or better, than a single clichéd love interest common to sports pictures.
Eckhart grew a beer gut and trimmed a lot of hair for his role, and adds some dimension and affability to the standard trainer mold. His New England accent is a little shaky, though not as suspect as Ted Levine playing a promoter who sounds a lot like Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs. Ciaran Hinds is a bit underutilized as Vinny’s father, able to hint at the drive instilled in his son with a no-nonsense tone, eventually reduced to reaction shots. Katey Sagal plays Concerned Mother Who Can’t Watch Her Son’s Fights.
Writer/director Ben Younger takes a no-frills approach to staging the boxing scenes, mostly foregoing showy tricks or overdramatization. One moment when all sound, other than the thud of gloves on flesh, is removed from the soundtrack is a standout.
As is typical, the movie opens and closes in the ring, bookending the rehabilitation from the accident. The climactic bout almost drains the significance from the rehab itself, with too much emphasis on the outcome rather than the Herculean feat of just getting back into boxing shape. Putting the title “Halo Surgery” onscreen during the procedure was a nice touch to mirror the titles put up before the in-ring matches, signifying that start of a different kind of battle.
The car accident is sufficiently terrifying, illustrating how simply and quickly it could happen to any of us. The aftermath is stressful when Teller agonizes at bumping the halo and strains when he starts working out again. There’s real anxiousness when Vinny bends and twists his neck, knowing that one wrong move could mean big trouble. The scene when the doctor removes the halo screws, sans sedative, feels gratuitous though, and a bit nonsensical.
The late-80s/early-90s look of the movie is too barefaced as well, with Younger and team going overboard to ensure we don’t go too long without seeing a wood-paneled room or someone in a track suit or acid wash jeans. It might be honest, but it’s also transparent artifice, just like Vinny’s underdog journey. Competently constructed, Bleed for This never takes full advantage of its subject’s scrappiness, too often falling back on training montages, against-all-odds rhetoric, and other movie rules that fail to surprise or invigorate.