Boxing and movies about the sport are all about mechanics.
Left jab, right hook, underdog saga, comeback kid. Stick to basics until the Big Fight. Mix it up with different combinations, and you've got to have heart.
Ben Younger's boxing biopic Bleed for This is a scrapper, with solid mechanics and a true story that would otherwise be dismissed as too incredible for a movie. As a fighter, Vinny Pazienza was flashy as they come. As a warrior, the "Pazmanian Devil" is unmatched in boxing, perhaps all of sports history.
Bleed for This begins where another boxing movie might end, with Pazienza, played by charismatic former Citrus County resident Miles Teller, winning a junior middleweight world title in 1991. Brash and talented, the belt was Pazienza's second championship in two different weight classes. An underdog making history. The end?
Not by a long shot. Soon after that win, Pazienza was nearly killed in a head-on car crash, leaving him with a broken neck, apparently ending his career. Bleed for This dramatizes Pazienza's ordeal to prove everyone else wrong, a masochistic quest shoving the movie into a unique slot among boxing flicks, where minor bumps outside the ring make viewers wince more than blows delivered inside it.
Pazienza's injury encased him in a metal "halo" brace for months, while he trained against doctors' orders and his family's concern. One slip lifting weights, one wrong sparring shot, could paralyze or kill him. Thirteen months later, Pazienza won a third world title in a third weight class.
That's a heck of a story that Younger trusts enough to tell straightforwardly, in a comeback arc of his own. Younger was a next big thing after he made his 2000 debut Boiler Room, then made a Meryl Streep movie even she may not remember (2005's Prime) and then disappeared. Bleed for This is blessed by the genre's godfather, executive producer Martin Scorsese, with an eye toward authentic boxing action and interesting personal dynamics.
Teller's Vinny isn't a raging bull but a wounded lion, having little to live for if boxing is taken away. Younger pokes into Vinny's Rhode Island roots, a local hero for a blue collar town, with a proud father (Ciaran Hinds) and a mother (Katey Sagal) praying in a bedroom shrine when he fights on TV, scared to watch. If Vinny loses everything, well, he's everything to them.
Everything dramatic about Bleed for This has been shown before; training sessions, pledges to be victorious, worried loved ones, a dedicated trainer (Aaron Eckhart). But Pazienza's fractured condition raises stakes higher than ever, milked for every ounce of cringing empathy. That halo brace is prop-bolted into Teller's skull and graphically removed without anesthetic since Vinny won't do drugs.
Vinny's sacrificial swagger is squarely in Teller's wheelhouse, an affably rebellious sort who won't be held back, not by a dictatorial teacher in Whiplash or a shattered cervical disc here. Vinny's early highs as a showboating champ, lows as an invalid and in-betweens torturing himself back into shape offer challenges Teller meets at every turn.
Bleed for This is a solid addition to the boxing movie canon, already overstuffed. Pazienza's determination to beat enormous odds and Teller's passionate portrayal make it worth checking out. Good mechanics, lots of heart.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.