I have absolutely no idea why there have been so many films about boxing in the last couple of years. I’m not in touch with the boxing community or its fandom, so I’m not sure whether the sport has surged in popularity in recent years or if film executives think they can recapture the essence of Rocky. (The only film to do so at the box office was Creed, and that film wasn’t such a success solely because it was a boxing flick.) It seems that every boxer of some note from a couple decades back is having their story adapted to the big screen, and the latest box office contender is Vinny Pazienza as dramatized by Bleed For This. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like anyone in the production—save for a couple of great performances—was willing to do much bleeding, or even much more than mild exertion.
The film opens with Pazienza (Miles Teller) as a cocky lightweight fighter, constantly taking hits he doesn’t need to and ultimately hurting himself in the process. The film’s first act functions as a mini coming-of-age arc, with Pazienza finding a new coach (Aaron Eckhart) who wants to bump him up two weight classes, while dealing with a father (Ciarán Hinds) who struggles with the loss of control over his son’s career. It’s beat for beat simple, but it progresses at a nice clip, even if the amount of detail that goes into this act is a bit unnecessary considering what happens at the act break.
What the film is truly about is how Pazienza survives a car crash and a spinal fracture, is told that he will never box again, then trains his way back into the ring. What once was a coming-of-age tale becomes a persistence against adversity arc, and the film suffers for it. It’s hard to say whether Teller’s performance is purposely opaque or if director Ben Younger was trying to stay true to Pazienza’s real-life lack of expression, but Pazienza never visibly grows or changes in an emotional sense. He is nearly a complete cipher, someone on which the audience can project but never shows any feeling beyond hollow determination. Teller is a capable actor if given good direction, but here he seems to sleepwalk through the film.
The film’s main saving graces—aside from a screenplay that effectively keeps the pace alive in a way Teller can’t or won’t—are the performances from Hinds and Eckhart. Hinds is incredibly effective as a projecting father figure, someone who wants control over his son’s career because he never reached the same heights his son did. After the car crash, he transitions into the role of a worried protector as he grapples with the notion that maybe he pushed his son into a life that could end up killing him. It’s nuanced stuff that would carry much more emotional weight if the film deigned to dwell on it.
Eckhart gives the best performance of the film as an alcoholic coach who must decide whether he will leave Pazienza to potentially hurt himself as he tries to train while injured or if he will assist in the training in order to mitigate that risk but take responsibility if something goes wrong. It’s a complicated issue that the film is content to resolve much too quickly, but Eckhart uses the scenes he has to great effect, even injecting humor into an otherwise dour film. (He performs an impromptu dance that deserves to be a gif for its pure absurdity.)
Ultimately, Bleed For This is a misfire, but only just so. It’s a rote, by-the-numbers affair that is sunk by its tired lead but lifted back up by its underutilized supporting cast. It’s entirely forgettable and likely will vanish into obscurity along with all the other failed cinematic boxing projects of recent years. It’s no Rocky, but it at least isn’t rock bottom.