The Bleeder is yet another one of those movies about a bumbling boxer with life lessons to learn that don’t involve punches to the face. It’s a genre that’s been done many times before and director Phillippe Falardeau doesn’t change the formula too much, except for a nice meta twist built into the true story. His boxer Chuck Wepner was the real-life influence of Rocky and that film played as much of a role in his rise and downfall as any in his actual boxing career. That makes for a fairly kind and gentle portrait of a punch-drunk lug going through a boozy and druggy 70s downfall because Wepner is such a lovable guy. Raging Bull this ain’t, in a variety of ways.
Liev Schreiber stars as Chuck Wepner. He was a local Jersey boxing hero, nicknamed ‘The Bleeder’ because of all the red stuff that tended to pour out of his face during an average boxing match. Fortune shined on Wepner when his manager (Ron Perlman) somehow arranged a title shot against Muhammed Ali. He lost, but lasted 15 rounds longer than anyone expected, a tale that Sylvester Stallone used as direct inspiration for Rocky. That movie’s wild success led to even more of an ego explosion and a taste for cocaine that cost Wepner his wife (Elisabeth Moss), his career, and eventually landed him in prison. At that point, there’s plenty of time for this to turn into a redemption tale, especially when Wepner meets a beautiful bartender played by Naomi Watts.
While there are certainly dark and tragic diversions baked into The Bleeder, the primary tone that Canadian director Falardeau employs is playful. Even the darkest moments are laced with a certain level of outrageous comedy, with the boxer’s biggest bad influences played by comedians Jim Gaffigan and Jason Jones. Wepner is portrayed as a lovable oaf with a self-destructive streak, not someone who sets out to hurt people (other than in the ring, of course). Schreiber adopts a thick accent and gentle touch for the role, creating a character that feels grounded yet still larger-than-life enough that his unexpected pop culture success feels natural.
The movie is shot in the beige tones and exaggerated grain of 70s film stock so that archival footage can be slipped in without much distraction. The actors cast as Muhammed Ali (Pooch Hall) and Sylvester Stallone (Morgan Spector) deliver playful impressions of amusingly intense accuracy to maintain the lightly comedic tone. The film is at it’s best when it’s as lost in a celebrity head rush as its main character, with all its Scorsese-influenced voiceover and tracking shots heightening the realism enough that none of the recognizable faces in the cast feel distracting.
With the big match and Rocky success coming at the midway point, there’s plenty of time for downfall and that’s where the movie starts to falter. Falardeau and Schreiber love Wepner too much to paint even his darkest chapters as a sad life. So even when the guy is beating his head against a steering wheel in self-loathing or bottoming out in prison, the stakes always seem low and a punchline is never far away. Certainly that makes The Bleeder an entertaining movie and helps avoid melodramatic traps that could have dragged the whole thing down. However, that tone also ends up making the film feel somewhat insubstantial, playing as too much of a lark to have the emotional heft that the filmmaker’s strives for.
Worse, the redemptive love story between real life couple Schrieber and Watts that’s supposed to serve as an emotional climax is too rushed to deliver the required feels. They’re both strong actors and obviously share chemistry, they just never get much more than a handful of insults and declarations of love to develop an entire relationship and it falls a bit flat as a result. On the plus side at least there isn’t much time wasted and it’s undeniably amusing to see the pair play off each other in a movie that blurs a few lines between reality and fiction throughout.
Ultimately, The Bleeder works. It’s fun, it’s sweet, it’s well made, and packs in just enough unexpected zigs and zags to avoid tedious predictability. The bio boxing genre has grown so formulaic and overly serious in recent years that the fact this movie dares to be fun is enough to shoot a little fresh life into the material. That also feels entirely appropriate for a tale of lovable loser Chuck Wepner, even if the filmmakers perhaps softened his rougher edges a little too much. You’ll smile, you’ll giggle, you’ll have a good time, and it likely won’t stick with you for very long once the credits roll. But that’s fine. It’s fun and that’ll do.
The Bleeder does not currently have a release date.
To catch up on all of our TIFF 2016 coverage thus far click here, or peruse our list of reviews below:
- American Pastoral
- The Bad Batch
- The Birth of a Nation
- Free Fire
- The Magnificent Seven
- A Monster Calls
- Nocturnal Animals
- Trespass Against Us
- A United Kingdom
- Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey