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“BLEED FOR THIS” Deserved Better

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In the lead-up to its November 18 release, the Vinny Pazienza fight flick, Bleed For This, was loaded up with quality buzz.

The early word on the movie was hot for Miles Teller as Pazienza, and particularly Aaron Eckhart as trainer Kevin Rooney. Oscar talk was in the air.

Unfortunately, almost nothing has gone right for the pic since. Reviews were positive, but only modestly so, and the all-important opening weekend box office was disastrous. Even at the low price tag of $6 million (excluding promotional costs), Bleed’s $3.3 million gross after over a week at the multiplexes has sunk not only its profitability potential, but scuttled awards consideration as well.

I’m here to tell you that’s a bit of a shame.

While Bleed For This doesn’t match either Creed or The Fighter in comparison (tall order by any measure), it outdistances Hands of Stone and Southpaw by some distance.

This is a gritty, genuine, and very well made film.

Teller exceeds expectations as the hotwired and often undisciplined Pazienza. The normally somewhat doughy actor physically transforms himself into hard cut sinew. More importantly, he looks and sounds like a boxer. You will have no issues buying him as a pugilist.

Perhaps the heaviest lift for Teller wasn’t the cutting of weight or the training required to be convincing in the ring. Vinny Pazienza (later shortened to Paz) may not have been a great boxer. I think you would find few who argue strongly otherwise. He was however, one hell of a fighter. There was really no such thing as a boring Vinny Paz fight. He took risks to hit, and therefore got hit a lot in return.

What Paz was first and foremost was one hell of a character. Wild, unruly, fierce, and boasting one hell of a mouth on him. His personality was as electric as his fights. Teller meets the occasion with no lack of brio. He is frequently hilarious and full of testicular fortitude. He accurately reflects the best line in the movie spoken to him by Ted Levine as Lou Duva, “You’ve got heart, kid. But you wear it on your f***in’ chin.”

The film makes a lot out of Paz’s comeback fight against Roberto Duran. What it slyly neglects to tell you is Duran was 43 years old at the time of their first fight. Without a doubt, Duran was still a tough guy. He was also well past his prime, and beating him looks better on the resume at a glance than it does under subterfuge.

While Paz did win 5 title belts in his career, some were for minor organizations. He had his share of solid wins, but typically when facing A list competition, he fell short.

What Paz had beyond heart and personality, was one hell of a story. Thought to be washed up at 29, Paz moved up in weight, earning a title shot at Gilbert Dele, who he defeated with a dramatic 12th round KO to take the WBA Light Middleweight Title. That’s a nice enough tale on its own, but what followed elevated Paz’s story to near legendary status within his sport.

Riding along as a passenger near his Providence home, Paz was involved in a horrible head on vehicular collision that broke his neck. Paz had the choice of either a spinal surgery procedure (that would guarantee his ability to walk, but end his boxing career), or a procedure fitting him with a halo that would give him the slimmest of chances of reentering the ring while also greatly increasing the risk of reinjury with potentially dire consequences. Vinny Paz chose the latter. He was a fighter.

This portion of his career is what sets him apart from his contemporaries, and also elevates the film beyond most of the usual boxing movie clichés. Every step, slight movement Paz made after being fitted with the halo carried great pain with it. As much as one can as a viewer, you feel it. What he was attempting was pure madness.
If you were setting out to create a medieval torture device fit for punishing any character in Braveheart, a halo would probably do. A metal band is screwed to the skull with arms that attach themselves to a fitted piece of hard plastic around the chest to keep the head stationary. Seriously, it’s worse than it sounds.

As rough as the surgery to put the thing in place is, the removal of the device is even worse. You will never think of the word “calcified” the same way after hearing it applied in Bleed For this as the reason why the loosing of the screws is so brutal.

This process of suffering and training is the heart of the film, and it is where the relationship of fighter and trainer, Teller and Eckhart, truly takes hold. As Kevin Rooney, Aaron Eckhart establishes a new career peak. Rooney had his own troubles when Paz came into his life. He was battling the bottle and struggling with his own relevance, or lack thereof, within the sport. While Eckhart can’t match Rooney’s unique speaking patterns (he doesn’t even try), he excels in all other areas. The normally fit actor adds on a slightly gone to seed paunch, trims his thick hairline to match his subject’s balding pate, and convincingly nails the blue collar New Yorker accent the part wouldn’t be complete without. In his own way, Eckhart transforms himself as much as Teller does.

And that’s what makes the indifference the movie has been greeted with such a shame. That’s not to say it’s a perfect film. Like Wahlberg’s The Fighter, Paz’s family is portrayed as a significant—and not always positive—part of his life. Unfortunately, other than Ciaran Hinds as his father—who’s a little too broad and caricatured in what amounts to a stage parent role—their parts are underwritten. Katey Sagal as his mother is just fine, but given far too little to do, and Amanda Clayton registers all too briefly as his tough love sister.

As well, Lou (and moreso Dan) Duva are showcased largely as opportunists, more interested in Paz’s novelty as a fighter than his overall well-being. Whether this is true or not may be a matter of opinion. In the movie, it feels a bit too convenient. As if the film couldn’t decide whether to make the Duva’s villains, or complex supporting characters. Unfortunately, it falls somewhere in-between which robs their scenes of resonance.

These shortcomings do not sink the film though. It’s a testament to Ben Younger’s direction (if not his screenplay) as well as the work of Teller and Eckhart that so much of the remainder of the film is top shelf. For such a slim budget, the film looks great. It bristles with heart and conviction. The employment of music is especially inspired. Juxtaposing modern recordings by Chicago bluesman, Willis Earl Beal, with songs from the era (the movie has the sack to use not one, but two Billy Squier songs at key moments—and wonderfully so) to create swagger and potency.
It’s also often uproarious. Teller’s sass mouth, Eckhart’s full-on whitey dance moves, and a clever upending of a bad ass ring walk early in the film all create frequent out-loud laughter.
What’s perhaps most admirable though is the film’s willingness to take larger than life personalities and situations and make them feel lived in by real people. At least where Teller and Eckhart are concerned. That’s no mean feat.

As I said before, Vinny Paz was not a great boxer. He is a man who broke his neck, chose greater misery for a minimal chance to return to his profession. The profession of getting hit in the face. 13 months after his accident he took to the ring and defeated the legendary, if declining, Roberto Duran. In both life and in the squared circle, Paz was in the truest sense a fighter.

That’s a one mother of a story. As I was sitting in the theater during the last scene when Teller explains to an interviewer the meaning of the word “simple”, I thought of how soulfully well told the tale had been over the last two hours plus.

What a shame it is that so many are missing it.

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