Boxer Vinny Pazienza’s return to the ring, just 13 months after suffering a broken neck in a head-on car crash, is one of the sport’s greatest comeback stories, and it deserves a movie that is able to convey just how miraculous his recovery and achievement were. Sadly, the punchless Bleed for This is not that film.
The problems begin right away with Vinny (Miles Teller) taking a nasty beating from junior-welterweight champion Roger Mayweather in 1988. Following the bout, fight promoter Lou Duva (Ted Levine) urges him to retire, thinking he’s washed up. Of course, the brutish “Pazmanian Devil” refuses to hang up his gloves, as boxing is his life. Unfortunately, the movie gives us zero background information on Paz. How long has he been a fighter? Has he lost several bouts in a row? What’s his record? Why the sudden concern? This isn’t Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, or Mike Tyson we’re talking about here; a little history would have been helpful in providing perspective, especially for moviegoers unfamiliar with Pazienza (which, one imagines, will be most ticket buyers). For the record, Paz was 25-3 following the Mayweather fight, and he was 25 years old. Hardly retirement age.
Instead of throwing in the towel, Vinny begins working out with legendary trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), a boozer who guided Tyson to a 35-0 record before being fired. Rooney suggests Vinny move up two weight classes and fight at his more natural heft, which will increase his power. The plan works and he defeats French boxer Gilbert Delé for the WBA World Junior Middleweight championship. Things are finally going Vinny’s way, but his celebration doesn’t last long: Shortly after the bout, his neck is severely fractured in a horrific car wreck. The doctors tell him that, although he has some movement in his legs, he may never walk again, and he certainly will never fight again. They recommend spinal-fusion surgery, which will guarantee mobility but effectively end his boxing career. Vinny refuses, and instead chooses to let the fracture heal on its own using a circular “halo” device that is held in place with four screws bored into his head. He then returns to his parents’ house to begin his six-month-long recuperation, and it’s at this point that the movie effectively becomes a snoozefest.
The entire middle section of the picture focuses on Vinny’s recovery, which involves nothing more than him lying in bed and secretly lifting weights in the basement. Teller’s uninspired performance doesn’t help: He looks like a kid and comes across as one. He obviously bulked up for the role, but we never quite believe that he’s the punishing pugilist he’s playing. Faring better are Eckhart as Rooney and Ciarán Hinds as Vinny’s gruff, cigar-chomping father, each of whom brings some spark to his character and gives Bleed for This much needed passion. As for the story’s women, they are, unfortunately, mostly MIA. Katey Sagal is wasted as Vinny’s fearful, religious mother, who spends most of her time lighting prayer candles and fretting over her son’s safety in the ring. Meanwhile, Vinny’s two girlfriends are quickly shoved to the sidelines.
Martin Scorsese is one of the executive producers of Bleed for This, and it’s a pity that writer/-director Ben Younger (Boiler Room) didn’t take a closer look at Scorsese’s masterful Raging Bull and infuse his story with a similar grit. To be fair, Bleed for This mostly resembles David O. Russell’s blue-collar bruiser The Fighter, but it has none of its humor, rich characterization, or bravado, either. Even worse, the movie’s fight scenes are unconvincing and boring.
Vinny Pazienza’s real-life story is truly inspirational. Too bad that uplift is muted in a film that’s anything but a knockout.