Everyone has a boxing film in them. But Miles Teller already did his. An ambitious talent driven to breakdown by his coach; a rise, a fall and a rise again: it hardly mattered that jazz drumming was Whiplash’s game. It was a better boxing drama, a better sports drama, a better film, than Bleed for This, a biopic of Rhode Island fighter Vinny Paz that goes toe-to-toe with genre cliche and ends up on the canvas.
Teller plays “the Pazmanian Devil”, a real-life boxing champ who, after breaking his neck in a car crash, defied doctors’ advice and got back in the ring. Aaron Eckhart is Kevin Rooney, the booze-beaten coach who still has enough fight in him to help the champ back to greatness. Also in Paz’s corner, his dad Angelo (played with vowel-gobbling voracity by a terribly miscast Ciarán Hinds) and his worried mum (Katey Sagal), clutching her rosary while Paz bounces back from another beating.
Writer-director Ben Younger is a sponge in a genre soggy with cliche. Yet Bleed for This lacks the style of Creed or the swagger of The Fighter. It’s not as nuanced as Raging Bull but neither is it as dumb as Southpaw. It flutters in the middle, displaying everything you expect (the big, loud Italian-American family; the against-all-odds resurgence; the training montage) with little of the raw rush normally associated with films about the brutal sport. For all its smashed open cuts and swollen eye sockets, Younger’s film remains an oddly sterile experience. For a biopic, it is remarkably featureless. The time, the place and the struggle are interchangeable with those of any other so-so boxing flick.
It’s not Vinny Paz’s fault. His story is sensational, inspirational. It’s Teller who is partly to blame. If War Dogs was his first boring performance, Bleed for This serves up his second. The part feels too easy for him and he brings an insouciance that doesn’t sit with the character’s hard-scrabble story. Hinds and Eckhart are left to fill the hole. With neither one of them caring to cede the floor, they end up in their own tussle for the heavyweight accent-mangling belt.
The fight scenes are nimble but perfunctory. Teller, packing on the muscle, looks the part when he shows up for it. It’s a story of strength that crumples; a portrait of vitality that plays awfully flat. We get all the beats – Paz’s desperation to fight again, his family’s horror that he’s risking his life in the ring – but nothing really connects.
Come the final bell, only two scenes stick. The first is Paz’s head-on car crash, shot through the windscreen for sickeningly real effect. The second is archive footage of the winning blow from the Pazmanian Devil’s 1985 fight against Melvin Paul. Paz, toying with his opponent, winds up a thundering right hook that sends Paul to the floor. It’s a daring, powerful, obscene and delightful shot. Here’s a film that could have done with many more of them.
This article was written by Henry Barnes, for theguardian.com on Saturday 3rd September 2016 01.15 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010