Since his electrifying showing in Damien Chazelle’s monumentally good Whiplash, Miles Teller has struggled to find a follow up worthy of his talents. Stuck in awful franchise fodder like Insurgent and Fantastic Four, recapturing that Whiplash fire has been an elusive goal. Luckily for Teller, Bleed for This, though not itself a fantastic film, is a step in the right direction, with its hero, Vinny Pazienza (Teller), possessing just as much masochistic drive and determination as jazz drummer Andrew Nyman. It’s not quite as stirring a performance, but Teller is still the undisputed highlight of this decent, though cliché-mired, boxing film.
Boxing is undoubtedly the most cinematic sport going, but the upshot of this is that, by 2016, its popularity means there’s very little originality left in the genre. Bleed for This ticks all the requisite boxes of violent sports dramas – there are montages, a masochistic redemption for an arrogant man, Italian family gatherings watching the fights on TV, and no roles for women outside of mothers and strippers. Clichéd to its core, Bleed for This is aided by its true story backing, with the various comebacks of Vinny Pazienza providing a solid structure of breathless highs and crushing lows.
Vinny can take a lot of punishment, but it’s not a style that wins him many bouts, and by the time we meet him he’s losing his third fight in a row. At a dead end, he’s all but dropped by his agents, and put out to pasture alongside his dad and manager Angelo (Ciaran Hinds) with new trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart). Once the trainer for Mike Tyson, Kevin’s alcoholism and exhaustion haven’t stopped him from having inspired ideas, and once he ups Vinny’s weight class and changes his training regimen, Vinny ends up a world champion and a hero to his home state, Rhode Island.
It’s after this fight that Bleed for This begins to find a slightly more original identity. Involved in a devastating, and very tastefully staged by director Ben Younger, car accident, Vinny fractures his neck. Determined to get back into the ring despite the fact that any further damage, no matter how slight, could completely paralyse or even kill him, Vinny pushes himself through unimaginable pain to get back to fighting fitness. Wearing a metal neck brace, known as a halo, he can initially barely sit up, but with ridiculous perseverance and help from Kevin, he starts to come back stronger than ever.
Vinny and Kevin’s burgeoning friendship during this recovery period bring out solid performances from both leads, and the film is at its best during the early stages of the post-injury training. Having to keep it hidden from Vinny’s family, they’re like two little boys with a secret, giggling about it over dinner after lifting weights and making silly videos in the basement. It’s genuine levity the likes of which are rare in boxing movies, generally a self-serious bunch, and it’s disheartening whenever it’s replaced by the more standard conflicts, though Teller and Eckhart are more than capable of selling both aspects.
Ciaran Hinds is a little shakier as the head of the supporting cast, his supposedly Italian accent slipping into Irish in any emotional moment, but he still makes a good fist of rather generic dialogue. Younger’s script contains few surprises, but manages to ratchet up the stakes to the point where Vinny’s inevitable comeback showdown (with Roberto Duran, whose own biopic, Hands of Stone, released earlier this year) gets the heart racing despite any predictability. Proving that the staples of the boxing movie remain bluntly effective and putting Miles Teller back into the conversation, Bleed for This just about overcomes its inherent limitations to make for a worthwhile take on a remarkable true story.