It’s difficult to do a boxing movie well. Even the greats—your Rockys, your Raging Bulls—tend to rely so heavily on formula that it’s difficult to break out of the molds of the genre. There’s very little room for narrative maneuvering in the world of boxing movies; no real way to stick and move.
Bleed for This is not a great boxing movie, though it tries very hard to position itself as one. Instead, it only ever manages to be somewhere between “pretty good” and “really good.” Greatness is a class it just cannot compete it, no matter how hard it works to move up.
That’s bizarre because the story of Vinnie Paz, much like the man himself, feels tailor made for greatness. A scrappy boxer who inspired the working class in his home state of Rhode Island, Paz became the second fighter in history to win both the lightweight and junior middleweight titles. His path to glory was derailed, however, when a car accident broke his neck and nearly killed him. Against all odds and, really, all common sense, Paz trained harder than ever, even with a halo still screwed into his skull, to comeback and reclaim his place in the boxing pantheon.
Rarely does life so impeccably imitate art. Had this not been a true story, Bleed for This would easily be dismissed as too formulaic and too predictable. All the elements are there, and they all add up to something we’ve seen countless times before. It’s the element of reality that keeps the film from getting too stale, as Paz’s story actually is inspiring.
Also helpful are the performances of the two leads. Miles Teller (Allegiant) embodies all the brash braggadocio that Paz himself embodied while in the ring, adding just the right amount of emotional vulnerability to the role as we watch him plunge into despair while recuperating from his broken neck. This is the kind of performance on which careers are based, and between it and Whiplash, Teller can all but certainly count on a fruitful future. He’s bolstered beautifully by Aaron Eckhart (Sully) as Paz’s drunken, near washed up trainer Kevin Rooney.
It’s the interplay between the two actors (and characters) that really pushes Bleed for This into near great territories, even if it never quite breaks through. Teller and Eckhart are mesmerizing to watch, with each enhancing the talents of the other until Teller and Eckhart disappear completely into Paz and Rooney. With a better script, that might’ve meant something.
Bogged down by the clichés of both boxing dramas and sports dramas, Bleed for This never truly gets a chance to become what it might’ve been. Ben Younger, who serves double duty here as writer and director, does have a strong eye for emotional cores and, a few moments aside, the dialogue is written very well. Where it loses itself is in the plotting. Angelo Pizzo gets a “story by” credit here, and while he’s built his career on writing tread worn clichés disguised as scripts, as with Rudy and My All American, that seems to be what keeps Bleed for This from truly shining.
Paz was an unconventional boxer with an unconventional story. It seems only right that he would be awarded a biopic that was a little less conventional. Younger does well infusing the story with nuance and subtlety, but never enough to overcome the limits of the genre.
Still, as hard as it is for a boxing movie to win me over, Bleed for This nearly did. All pieces added and weighed, you still have a movie with substantially more good than bad; as predisposed as I am to not care about a boxing movie, that in itself is pretty high praise. While never quite breaking the molds of the genre that confines it, Bleed for This manages to, at the very least, shine as a beacon for the formula. Teller and Eckhart are entrancing, and Younger’s directorial eye often manages to find the nuance between the lines of his predictable script.
While earning neither KO or TKO, Bleed for This does manage to go the distance, and fans of boxing and sports movies will find a lot to enjoy and appreciate from the film. If they had tried a little harder to make a less conventional film, it could’ve been a contender for greatness. Paz always tried to push himself harder in his boxing career, and it’s a shame the movie didn’t strive for the same goal.
Bleed for This is now playing in theaters everywhere.