Movie review: Pazienza biopic, ‘Bleed for This,’ packs a punch
From its opening scene of splitting 10s on a $20,000 blackjack hand to triumphantly returning to the boxing ring after a devastating injury, “Bleed for This” is all about beating the odds. Simply put, charismatic boxer Vinny Pazienza is a true fighter in every sense of the word with a larger-than-life personality and wicked sense of humor.
Rhode Island filmmaker Ben Younger (“Boiler Room”) brings Vinny’s tale of resiliency to the big screen, co-writing and directing the movie that also serves as a valentine to his native state. Younger captures the commonplace, the mood, the texture of the area in spades. He also puts you in the back seat of that cherry-red IROC Camaro when it crashes head-on into another vehicle. Only the sound of a car’s horn uncomfortably fills the theater as Vinny lays unresponsive, bloodied, head hanging out the passenger-side window. On its own merit, Vinny’s story is so rich in detail and emotion that it is ripe for a dramatic telling. Younger’s job really is not to mess it up. He doesn’t. He might have even made it better, focusing his camera on the small stuff — the screws being drilled into Vinny’s skull or his struggle to lift a fork full of mom’s spaghetti — rather than the big cliched moments typical of a sports film. Younger still captures those, though. How can you not have a training montage? But the climatic boxing match — the famous Duel in the Desert at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas against Roberto Duran (who got his own biopic “Hands of Stone” earlier this year) is well earned.
Damn if there wasn’t a tear in my eye. Even though the outcome is no secret, you’re still invested in Vinny every step and jab of the way. Miles Teller (“Whiplash”) steps into the ring as Vinny, fully inhabiting his trunks — and garish moustache — in early fights and later the metal halo that’s screwed into his head to stabilize his broken neck. He’ll wear that cage for 6 months and take in stride jokes of the Pazmanian Devil wearing a “halo.” And despite being told by trainers, doctors, family, agents, promoters, et.al, that he’ll never fight again, Vinny refuses to doubt himself. Well, he does for a fleeting moment, especially when he can’t even win at black jack anymore. Then, he decides to get real, secretly lifting weights in his basement at 3:30 a.m.
Teller, despite being taller than Vinny, delivers an Oscar-worthy performance full of the boxer’s blue-collar grit, determination and Italian swagger. He’s a marvel, ditto for Aaron Eckhart as Vinny’s paunch-bellied lush of a trainer who once worked with Mike Tyson, and Ciaran Hinds as Vinny’s tough-on-the-outside dad, Angelo. He’ll break your heart when he finally sees Vinny not as the family meal ticket but as his nearly dead son. As Louise Pazienza, Katey Segal elevates the typical Italian mom part to something bigger. When Vinny’s sisters gather to watch their brother’s bouts on TV, Louise sits in a corner in front of burning candles and religious icons, rosaries in hand. She can’t bear to watch. Shots of her face and eyes relay everything you need to know. She cringes when hearing the announcer describe her son’s beating at the hands of Roger Mayweather early in the film that landed Vinny in the hospital with near-fatal dehydration. He wasn’t supposed to fight again after that, either.
Ultimately, Vinny learns the old lesson that life — and boxing — is a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t brawl, you have to box, which he did as he bobbed and weaved his way to becoming one of the greatest comeback stories in sports history. Talk about going the distance.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
“Bleed for This”
Cast: Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Ciarán Hinds, Katey Sagal, Amanda Clayton.
(R for language, sexuality/nudity and some accident images.)