[This is a re-post of my review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival; Bleed for This opens tomorrow.]
Based on Hands of Stone and now Bleed for This, I’ve come to the conclusion that I prefer my boxers fictional (or, if they must be real, then presented in a documentary like When We Were Kings). I like the Rocky movies and I especially like the spinoff Creed. There are exceptions like Raging Bull, but part of the reason that movie succeeds is that it’s willing to explore the darkness of its subject. By comparison, Ben Younger’s Bleed for This mostly removes the rough edges of boxer Vinny Pazienza to tell a predictable comeback story that, at best, is worth a made-for-TV movie. The script doesn’t challenge Younger’s talented cast, and it reduces the complexity of Pazienza’s story down to a fighter who fought to keep fighting.
The story begins in 1988 when Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller) loses a match that ends up sending him to the hospital. While his old trainer declares that perhaps it’s time for Vinny to retire, Vinny goes and finds a new trainer, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), who decides that it’s time for Vinny to jump up two weight classes rather than starve himself into a lower weight class. Vinny is riding high until he gets into a car crash that fractures his neck. The doctor tells Vinny that he’ll be lucky to walk again let alone fight, but Vinny is determined to make a comeback to the ring, and with Kevin’s help, he tries to work his way to a title fight.
Bleed for This makes a strong case that not all inspiring sports narratives need to be turned into movies. If we want to celebrate what Pazienza accomplished, then those celebrations can come from news stories and the actual winning of titles. To spin a hagiography around these events cheapens the reality of the struggle. The handheld camera work may try to pass Bleed for This off as an indie, but it’s got a Hollywood sheen where the hero triumphs over adversity. The major beats are the truth, but Younger skips the nuance.
The movie also glosses over Pazienza in really odd ways. At one point, Pazienza claims that he doesn’t drink or do drugs, but he’s been arrested for alcohol-related offenses. Perhaps Pazienza started drinking after the events of this movie, but the fact that Pazienza’s biggest drawback is that he’s cocky illustrates how little the story works to humanize him. In the eyes of Bleed for This, it’s the world that’s the problem, not Pazienza. Everyone from his family to his trainer to his managers at some point told Pazienza he wouldn’t return to boxing after his incident, and Bleed for This is a feature-length middle finger to naysayers. That may be rewarding for Pazienza, but it comes off as petty to everyone else.
Maybe people who follow boxing or care about boxing history will be interested in seeing how Younger chooses to spin Pazienza’s story or how it plays with the timeline for more dramatic effects. For example, in the film, Pazienza’s big comeback fight is against the famous Roberto Duran (the Panamanian fighter featured in Hands of Stone), but in real life it was against Luis Santana. But for everyone else, Bleed for This is just another boxing movie, and not a particularly good one at that.