It’s hard to get too excited about another boxing movie after last year’s Southpaw, which featured a knockout performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, and this year’s endearing Rocky sequel Creed. But because Bleed For This is based on the genuinely remarkable career of ’80s and ’90s Italian-American champion Vinny ‘The Pazmanian Devil’ Pazienza, it promises to pack a hefty punch.
When we meet Pazienza (Whiplash’s Miles Teller), he’s already a fading fighter on the comeback trail. After teaming up with Mike Tyson’s former trainer Kevin Rooney (The Dark Knight’s Aaron Eckhart), who also needs a career boost after an embarrassing DUI conviction, Pazienza beats the odds to claim another world title. Yet before he has time to bask in victory, Pazienza is involved in a gut-wrenching car crash in which his neck is broken and doctors tell him he’ll never box again. Desperate and defiant, Pazienza secretly begins a training regime while he’s still constrained by a halo, a brutal-looking circular metal device screwed into his skull in four places.
Writer-director Ben Younger (Prime) tells Pazienza’s story efficiently but without depth. A scene in which Pazienza has his halo screws literally twisted out of his skull after refusing anaesthetic shows the boxer’s force of will, but elsewhere there’s little attempt to get inside his psyche. “This is what I do,” he responds nonchalantly when his motivations are questioned.
Bleed For This has some neat period details like a strip club scene set to George Michael’s ’80s hit ‘Monkey’, but its depiction of a working-class Italian-American family who squabble over spaghetti feels two-dimensional. Potentially interesting supporting characters like Pazienza’s conflicted father (Game Of Thrones’ Ciarán Hinds) and devoted Catholic mother (Sons Of Anarchy’s Katey Sagal) are disappointingly thinly drawn.
Because of Teller’s compelling performance and chemistrywith Eckhart, it’s hard not to be roused by the film’s triumphant finale, but it never transcends the clichés of its genre. It’s an often gripping film, but never very insightful.