When you look at Miles Teller in person, you don’t think “World Champion Boxer” – but an additional 20 pound of muscle fixes that. When you see Aaron Eckhart, you don’t think “overweight alcoholic coach” – but with an additional 40-or-so pounds of fat and a half-bald head, that changes. When see the cast of Bleed For This, you don’t think “an uplifting true story that defies all odds” – but after you watch Ben Younger’s no-punches-pulled biopic about Vinny Pazienza, I guarantee you will. This is a boxing drama that scrappily battles for its recognition, determined to win you over at any cost.
As you might have already gathered, Teller stars as Rhode Island’s own boxing phenom, Vinny Pazienza. Starting out as a Lightweight, Vinny strings together an impressive streak of wins before suffering from a near-death dehydration experience. That’s when coach Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart) decides to bump him up to a more natural weight class. Vinny ends up taking the Junior Middleweight division by storm, and snatches the world title from Gilbert Dele – then tragedy strikes. A serious car accident leaves the Italian fighter with a broken neck, and doctors confirm he may never walk again. A spinal fusion is suggested, but Vinny ops for a metal Halo brace so he can naturally heal for six months, and hopefully return to the ring. The odd are negatively stacked, but this never stops the man who refuses to hear the word “can’t.”
So is the setup for another “down-on-his-luck underdog” story, yet Vinny Pazienza’s life-threatening condition makes for a gnarly (not in the slang positive way), all-too-true twist. A broken neck means any wrong move and Vinny’s entire spinal column could be severed. This isn’t a fighter confronting a life without boxing, it’s a broken brawler facing the possibility of life itself coming to an end – or just crippling paralysis as best. Once Vinny gets his Halo screwed on like Frankenstein, a drastic change in tone flips to brutal seriousness. Gone are Teller’s confident ticks and quick-fire insults, replaced with a recurring, somber expression that’s always in contemplation – never surrender.
When we first meet Vinny, he’s a overly-confident wonder boy who treats boxing like the game needs him. Instead of sleeping and resting, he gambles and showers his girlfriend’s naked body with lucky blackjack winnings. Bad-boy sophistication is Vinny’s charm, which isn’t too much of a stretch for Teller’s acting range – but it’s Vinny’s lowest moments that showcase what Ben Younger’s lead actor can do. Teller reigns in the whole playboy persona once death becomes a palpable reality, while still fighting for the only reality he can comprehend. Kevin tries to talk sense into his die-hard pupil, but Vinny won’t hear it. The boxer can’t handle a life without competition, so he starts pumping iron and cranking his stationary bicycle as fast as the pedals will go while wearing full headgear. Stubbornness and ambition go hand in hand, accenting Teller’s fleet-of-foot performance.
Before touching on other characters, let’s first acknowledge how Teller actually plays the part of a boxer with conviction. Younger’s boxing drama packs one mean, dramatic punch, but also plenty of physical lumps as well. Each landed hit echoes with a bellowing WHAP, highlighting the pain and power behind each fighter’s haymaker. Numerous training montages prove that Teller can knock a speedbag and dodge swinging training dummies, while actual ring fights showcase Teller’s ability to tango. Bleed For This is able to land plenty of memorable blows throughout Vinny’s lengthy road to recovery, loud and angry enough to have audience members wincing through Younger’s command of focused aggression.
Now we can get back to supporting characters, especially Aaron Eckhart’s slovenly transformation into a chubby drunk coach with a near-gone hairline. It’s the kind of performance people should be talking about around awards season, with the pep and spunk of a much younger Mickey. Eckhart balances gritty, ball-busting inspiration with a supportive undertone that truly cares about Vinny, mixing funny little gyrating dance sequences with straight-forward – hard to swallow – honesty. Ciarán Hinds mumbles on about as Vinny’s pushy father, and a few representative boxers rumble with pride, but Teller and Eckhart are a powerhouse awards-season team, with good reason.
Bleed For This is a far-extreme boxing drama with dire consequences, which makes the story of Vinny Pazienza such a crazy journey follow. Miles Teller dances and swings like a true boxer – taking his emotional lumps like a proper champion as well – while Aaron Eckhart makes a strong Oscar push of his own. You’ll feel each punch – like a rattle through your bones – and experience the heartbreak of being told “No.” Ben Younger has quite the underdog hit on his hands, boasting equal parts swagger, pride and the power of doing – a bit cliché, but what a bruiser this biodrama is.
Bleed For This takes its lumps and earns its respect like a good boxing drama should.