Providence, Rhode Island’s own Vinny “The Paz-manian Devil” Pazienza, played in writer-director Ben Yonger’s biopic Bleed for This by Miles Teller, was an unlikely boxing success story of the late 1980s. Winner of various titles in both lightweight and middleweight divisions, Vinny Paz had a lackadaisical, devil-may-care persona outside the ring, but the heart and drive of a champion inside. But just as Pazienza’s career was achieving new heights, a near fatal 1991 car crash left the boxer with a broken neck and a spinal injury that threatened to derail the champion’s future in the business.
Anyone who knows the story of Pazienza knows that Bleed for This will become yet another comeback sports story, but I guess it’s a credit to Younger that he waits nearly a full hour for tragedy and setback to kick in. And anyone who does their research into Pazienza knows that a considerable amount of this is being told with rose coloured glasses (since the charismatic boxer really isn’t that likeable outside the sport) and with an eye towards as many high-spot feel good theatrics and montages as possible. It’s a well made film, and certainly an entertaining one that boasts lovely period detail and game performances, but it’s an easy one to successfully mount.
It’s all very well steeped in Stallone’s Rocky Balboa efforts, but with a protagonist with decidedly less humility. Vinny has a grizzled, alcoholic trainer with a hair trigger temper, played nicely by Aaron Eckhart in the best role he’s been given in the past several years. His father and manager (Ciarán Hinds) is a flashy dresser and big personality, so you can see where Vinny gets his swagger from. Katey Sagal looks like she’s having a blast as Vinny’s mother. Vinny has demons of his own, and he struggles when forced to think about what his life would be like if he didn’t have boxing to fall back on. Teller’s performance in the lead is the right amount of transformative dramatic work and subtly goofy character beats.
Those who’ve never experienced a Rocky film or any of its like minded brethren and those who’ve never heard of Pazienza will know exactly what to expect from Bleed for This. It’s just another one of those “athletic hero of the working class” tales. Nothing strikes as particularly surprising because the film wouldn’t be pitched at the tonal level it aims for if things weren’t going to work out more or less okay in the end. It’s a good time movie directed with the élan of a two hour music video from a bygone era, but since that’s what it aims to be, that’s the mark that gets hit. Sometimes one can’t entirely fault a film for being predictable if the final results are as successful as Bleed for This.
But outside of the credible performances from a cast of heavy-hitting pros, the biggest asset here is Younger, a talented filmmaker who doesn’t work nearly as often as he should. Younger has only made two features prior to this: the cult classic stock trading flick Boiler Room in 2000 and the underrated romantic comedy Prime in 2005. He’s an energetic director well steeped in Hollywood convention, but capable of pulling back the reigns to allow a great deal of subtlety and performance to shine through.
If the first half of Bleed for This documenting Pazienza’s rise to prominence is decidedly unsubtle, it’s the film’s second half where the boxer mounts his comeback that feels like a refreshing take on time tested material. Amid the standardized training montages, Younger allows for contemplative moments where the characters dwell on their past decisions, almost existentially wondering aloud where they’re all going to end up. It doesn’t lose the crowd pleasing feeling, however. Those subtle character beats are what make Bleed for This a 12th round, split-decision winner. It’s an easy film to watch and enjoy with just enough meat left on the bones.