Bleed for This (2016)

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“He’s an animal.”

Here’s a film that wants us to believe in miracles. Think Kirk Gibson’s hobbled and hunched over ’88 World Series game winning home run was an act of God? Bleed for This will make you think again. The movie’s case to make believers out of all of us has the proper true story at its disposal, giving us the highs and the lows of boxer Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza (Miles Teller). On top of the world one moment, nearly dead after a devastating car accident the next. Will he ever fight again? To doctors and to his doubters the answer is absolutely not. Of course Vinny’s time sparring is through. Could he walk again? Yes, with a spinal fusion. But the procedure eliminates Vinny’s passion, which in his vocabulary means to eliminate life itself. As a sports biopic, Bleed for This falls somewhere in the forgettable middle. Yet as an uplifting personal drama of confronted life challenges, the picture has small pockets full of an invigorating sense of change and courage.

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Too many of the relational dynamics of this film go unrefined. Who are all of these interchangeable women Vinny slums with and why are they even included? They’re objects, not people. What does the relationship with his overbearing father (Ciaran Hinds) say about his manhood? He’s childish, verbally independent while actionably dependent. Can there be an explanation for Vinny’s frequenting of strip clubs and casinos besides greed and testosterone? And why does his comeback trainer Kevin (Aaron Eckhart) have a thirst for the bottle? Bleed for This has more questions than answers and gives its supporting figures bones to lean upon but no flesh to ever feel like people. Hinds has a handful of strong scenes, and Eckhart continues to display his recent proclivity for playing an integral minor character. The real saving grace is Teller.

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Miles Teller has been in a lot of bad movies, ranging from raunchy romantic comedies to stupid science fiction spectacles. However, he’s also been the star of some of the best films I’ve seen this decade, like The Spectacular Now followed by Whiplash. While his over-confident and brash demeanor might turn people away, he’s able to back it up with a diversified skill-set. I spent a long time questioning the reality of this film and this world, but not once did I call into question Teller’s take on Pazienza. He wears that crusty wooly willy mustache like a prized ornament, photocopies Vinny’s fighting style, and exudes the mythic man’s extraordinary drive through a performance ranging from whispers to moments of concert hall loudness. Bleed for This throws plenty of combination punches, occasionally missing with the jab here and there, always reliant on Teller to land the knockout blow. He delivers time and time again.

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The film tells an overrated boxing story within the framing of a likable underdog. Everything builds to 32-year-old Vinny’s truly miraculous comeback bout, but he’s also fighting Roberto Duran, now a washed up and slow boxer who was 11 years Pazienza’s elder, battling it out for a belt that practically means nothing in the boxing world. The 1995 match was the second of their meetings – which I watched in its entirety on YouTube – and despite the film’s depiction, the scorecard shouldn’t have even be close. Pazienza destroyed Duran, was faster, more agile, able to duck and dodge and dip. The miracle in watching this fight and watching this film isn’t in the ending; most of it is overlooked for time concerns or embellished for cinematic effect. But what should be noted is all of the painstaking formula that takes place before the anticlimactic buildup. Director Ben Younger’s film is a variation on the boxing genre, meaning that its best parts occur outside the ropes with no gloves or tape or blood. Bleed for This brawls around with spirit and vigor inside the ring and the training area, yet is at its most compelling when it’s completely stripped down and vulnerable, not fighting an opponent toe to toe, but rather grappling with the sort of faceless demons we all see when we look back at that flawed reflection of ourselves in the mirror. At least it recognizes the imperfections.

“Some hits you’re not being tough by taking.”

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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