A remarkable true story doesn’t necessarily make for a remarkable film. In fact, it can almost be a detriment, as it can give a film a fatal sense of responsibility to the source material. The film will go big—out of respect—when it should go small. “Bleed for This” doesn’t take the bait.
Along with being a world champion boxer, Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza (Miles Teller) is a world champion showman. He knows what to say when the cameras are on and how to sell a fight. He lives with his family in a home that resembles a walk-in closet, where an entire section is dedicated to Catholicism and his brother’s homemade sculptures, most of which are elephants. The dress code is tracksuits, snakeskin shoes and gold cross necklaces, preferably perched upon a tuft of chest hair. This may not seem like much, but Vinny is happy because he is boxing—it’s all he needs, all he wants and all there is. And it all goes away with one car wreck, in which Vinny breaks his neck, never to fight again, according to the doctors. The doctors screw an iron halo to his head—ironic because of his nickname, but still appropriate, concerning the death/rebirth themes we’re working with here—to keep his neck straight. Unable to shake the boxing bug, Vinny disobeys the doctor’s orders and begins training with the halo still on, dreaming of the comeback to beat all comebacks.
As the film moves along, playing out pretty much as we expect it to, it has an honest, unassuming quality. There’s a fantastic series of shots where Vinny, equipped with the halo, is sitting in a strip club, surrounded by flashing lights and nude women, yet he is neither elated nor deflated, but an empty shell of his former self. Or take the character of his father, played by Ciaran Hinds, who is more than just a voice on one side of the shoulder or the other; he’s a man who wants multiple things at the same time. It’s this quiet sincerity pervading the film that keeps it from reaching the operatic melodrama of, say, last year’s “Southpaw.”
Sports films are singled out for their dependence on clichés, and rightfully so, whether it be the touchdown by a centimeter or the motivational speech that makes it okay for men to cry. Boxing films have their own subsection of clichés, such as the reaction shots of relatives watching the fight on television or the gruff trainer whose voice sounds like a rock slide of bad decisions, both of which this film proudly declares as its own. At first, I found myself disappointed that an otherwise good film would lean on trite devices, but then I realized that I sort of like these particular trite devices.
Although Teller wears the spotlight—and flaunts it well—Aaron Eckhart steals the show as the previously mentioned trainer, Kevin Rooney. The character moves like a man who’d rather not, and while his alcoholism is only briefly touched upon, it’s clearly a part of his being. And I can’t think of anyone who could deliver the line, “Christ and elephants,” quite as well.
“Bleed for this” isn’t rewriting the playbook on the redemption story or the boxing film, but it gives both a good name. At one point, Vinny preaches that life isn’t so complicated, and that oftentimes, the simplest solution is the best one. So goes it with the film itself: simple, but it works.
3 out of 5 stars