Some god who probably dwells in Los Angeles has declared that there has to be at least one big fighting movie every year — boxing, wrestling, MMA, whatever, as long as there is a ring, a cheering crowd, and a story of overcoming long odds: injury, a tough upbringing, a looming legacy, etc.
Fighting movies have been around almost as long as movies themselves, but in the past few years directors have generally figured out how to play with genre conventions and expectations. The result has been a number of very watchable movies in which guys get in a ring and beat each other to a pulp. But even the more conventional fighting films balance nail-biting bouts with interesting, humanistic stories — most of which are about the lives of economically distressed working-class men.
This year, that film is Bleed for This, the true story of a boxer who broke his neck and came back anyhow. Last year, that movie was Creed, the remarkably good de facto reboot of the Rocky franchise. A cursory check yields a bunch more from recent years, like Southpaw (2015), Foxcatcher (2014), The Fighter (2010), Fighting (2009), The Wrestler (2008), Warrior (2011), Cinderella Man (2005), and Million Dollar Baby (2004), rare for its female lead.
Most of those are tense, taut crowd-pleasers, which Bleed for This clearly intended to be as well, with an interesting and true story at its center. It has all the hallmarks: the working-class family, the tough background, the gruff coach, the charismatic young fighter, and a seemingly unsurmountable hill for our underdog to climb. But despite all that, Bleed for This is utterly devoid of tension, making for a limp entry in the fighting-film lineage.
Bleed for This seems like Miles Teller’s gambit for awards-season recognition
For a young (male) actor on the cusp of his career breakout, starring in a fighting movie is a great way to get attention as a serious performer. Getting buff and bloodied and displaying emotion onscreen seems to be a winning combo.
One imagines, then, that this impulse is behind Miles Teller’s role in Bleed for This, in which he plays Vinny "Paz" Pazienza, a promising young boxer who broke his neck in a car accident and was told he’d never fight again, but fought his way back anyway and won several world titles. Teller had a stunning, star-making turn in Whiplash (2014), following an underrated but great performance in the teen dramedy The Spectacular Now — both roles where he was essentially playing a teenager. But Teller, who is almost 30, has not yet managed to convert those successes into dramatic adult roles.
Whiplash was a movie about beating your inner demons — and some outer demons — in the dogged pursuit of perfection. That works as a description for Bleed for This, too, with boxing substituted for drumming. Before his accident, when he’s still a rising yet undisciplined star, Vinny starts training with Kevin Rooney (a paunchy, balding Aaron Eckhart) and goes through the ringer to prepare to pursue championship titles. His family is the loud, loving Catholic type, and they both butt heads with Kevin and spend all their emotional energy on Vinny’s career.
Everything in Bleed for This is pedal to the metal from the first scene. The story takes place in the 1980s, and the set and costume designers went maximal on that cue. Think less The Americans, more American Hustle — jewelry, hair, clothing, music, the works, up to and including the queasy mustache Teller sports for the role. There’s lots of fighting and training montages, and several matches in the ring, complete with screaming crowd.
All told, Bleed for This is a loud, showy movie that appears to be gunning for prestigious awards for all involved — which makes its almost complete lack of narrative tension curious.
Bleed for This relies too much on Vinny’s comeback and not enough on a story
I genuinely can’t figure out what went wrong with Bleed for This, but in place of the seat-gripping suspense that usually accompanies a climactic fight scene — will he win after all this hard work? — I felt a deep apathy for Vinny’s stakes. Maybe he’d win, maybe he wouldn’t. It didn’t really seem to matter.
The only explanation I have is that the movie relies way too heavily on the idea that it’s an "inspirational true story," as pithily captured in the tagline on the movie poster: "This is what the greatest comeback in sports history looks like." Going in, we know Vinny’s going to come back, and it’s going to be great, so when he gets in an accident, it’s just a question of how and when. You can feel the suspense leaking out.
That he managed to pull through is truly amazing, no argument there. But montages of a guy slowly and painfully doing crunches and bench presses just doesn’t make for great cinema, especially when you know he’s going to make it eventually.
But while Bleed for This isn’t a great movie, there’s still the kernel of an interesting idea beneath its surface, thanks to Vinny’s family’s devout Catholic faith. We often see his mother in her prayer closet, loaded with images and icons of saints, praying while Vinny is fighting; this happens so many times on screen that it can’t be a mere afterthought.
It’s not explicit, but there are a few moments when a strain of Catholic thought about mortifying the body in the pursuit of sanctification seems to rise to the surface. (The movie is called Bleed for This, after all.) Vinny is an undisciplined playboy before his accident; afterward, he has to relearn how to live.
The process he undertakes to train his body to work again is grueling and immensely painful — and we are granted many scenes that show just how painful, to the point where it starts to feel like self-flagellating torture. In some strains of Catholicism, mortifying the flesh through discomfort and self-inflicted pain is a way to purify the soul, and while I don’t want to draw too many conclusions here, the film seems to be drawing on that imagery to construct Vinny’s character arc. That his boxing-ring nickname is "The Pazmanian Devil" and his robe sports little devil ears seems like a wink at this.
But those hints at some deeper metaphor don’t change the film’s biggest narrative flaw, which is that it’s just hard to care. Just because someone wants to win fights doesn’t mean the audience automatically wants that for them. People get in accidents and experience massive setbacks every day, and instead of doggedly insisting that they’ll have the same things afterward that they wanted before — championship titles, in Vinny’s case — they find new ways to live a life full of purpose. At times, Vinny’s insistence on having his way feels less courageous, more spoiled and reckless. It works out for him, but it doesn’t for most people.
Bleed for This isn’t a total dud; Eckhart is great, Teller is acting his heart out, and there are moments of pure fun and excitement. But in a field of great movies about fighters, Bleed for This isn’t anywhere close to the top.
Bleed for This opens in theaters on November 18.