Boxing movies trade in clichés, but the great ones – Raging Bull, The Fighter, even the first Rocky – understand that the human element surrounding the sport is what makes it compelling on screen.
leed For This (which counts Martin Scorsese as a producer) isn’t quite in that league, but it’s certainly got some moves of its own and does have a fascinating tale to tell.
Based on the true story of world boxing champion Vinny Pazienza, its most brazen move initially is to pack an entire boxing movie into its first 40 minutes. Picking up the story of this cocky, Italian-American working class hero (winningly played here by Whiplash star Miles Teller), the film starts with Vinny being written off by his coach live on TV after suffering his third defeat in a row.
Refusing to hang up his gloves, he teams up instead with Mike Tyson’s washed-up former trainer Kevin Rooney (an unrecognisably paunchy and bald-headed Aaron Eckhart), who realises Vinny has literally been punching below his weight all these years, so moves him up a couple of classes so he can fight at a more natural weight for his body type.
Winning his first title fight before the film is even a third of the way through, what would be a fitting endpoint for many an underdog sports movie turns out to be the prologue for a much more interesting comeback story after a car accident leaves Vinny with a broken neck.
Thenceforth writer/director Ben Younger zeroes in not so much on boxing, but on how Vinny’s absolute love of the sport enables him to endure all manner of suffering for the chance to fight again. It’s this that makes the film so engrossing, especially when it becomes clear Vinny is willing to risk paralysis by declining an operation to fuse his spine in order to let it heal naturally – a recovery that requires him to wear a metal halo and neck brace for six months.
Although a lot of Bleed for This – including a supporting cast of characters with outsized personalities that naturally lean towards caricature – can’t help but feel preposterous, Younger takes care to keep things rooted in the real and he’s aided by Teller and Eckhart, who give it their all in a movie that ultimately celebrates the simple power of living for the thing you love most.
On general release
By Alistair Harkness