Countless hard luck boxing dramas have been released since ‘Rocky’ and most aren’t worth the pain of suffering through. ‘Chuck’ is the latest and thankfully proves to be an exception to the rule. The reason? Well, it’s about Chuck Wepner, the man that Stallone allegedly based ‘Rocky’ on, and it’s as much about the awkward D-List celebrity life Wepner led after that strange brush with film fame as it is about the boxing.
Liev Schreiber stars as Wepner. He opens the movie as something of a local Jersey celebrity. He’s a heavyweight fighter more known for the ways he bleeds profusely during matches than any particular skill. (The movie was originally titled ‘The Bleeder’ when it played at TIFF last year.) The guy can take a punch and wins matches through attrition, which eventually lands him an opportunity to fight none other than Muhammad Ali. He loses the fight, but lasts 15 rounds and gains 15 minutes of fame. That leads to the predictable troubles at home with a far-too-forgiving wife (Elisabeth Moss) and some rounds with arrogance. Then he gets a second brush with fame once a young Sylvester Stallone writes and stars in a movie loosely based on him called ‘Rocky’. That flick becomes a phenomenon and, for a while, Wepner is an even bigger fish in his small pond. Given that this happens during the peak of America’s love affair with cocaine, Wepner doesn’t handle it well, leading to a series of darkly comedic mishaps that eventually earn him prison time and an inevitable shot at redemption.
On the one hand, ‘Chuck’ is a macho dumbell rise, fall and redemption tale as indistinguishably generic as the title. On the other hand, the fact that the story runs out of sports movie clichés early and stumbles into a more interesting theme about fumbling with glory ensures that it at least feels unpredictable and lively. The boxing movie section is condensed to the first half of the script, allowing it to play out quickly without too many trips to the obvious. The period design is also stunning, with costumes, sets and grainy cinematography so accurate to the period that director Philippe Falardeau is able to cut in stock footage without it feeling distracting. The world feels rough and lived-in. The tone jumps from comedy to tragedy and back again in ways that, for the most part, feel more like the jagged rhythms of life than typical bio-pic fare.
It also doesn’t hurt that the movie is admirably free of hero worship. Chuck Wepner might ultimately emerge as a good person, but only after he’s shown at his weakest and most out of control. Schrieber paints the character with hangdog compassion without ever pandering for empathy. It’s a wonderfully layered, wounded, and surprisingly funny performance. The cast around him is equally strong, be it Elisabeth Moss’ fed-up housewife, Jim Gaffigan’s burnout bad influence, Ron Perlman’s struggling coach, or Pooch Hall’s frighteningly accurate take on Muhammad Ali. The world feels so vividly real, the performances are so strong, and the tone is so resistant to obvious dramatic beats that ‘Chuck’ offers a hell of a lot of fun. It’s a fantastic loser tale with the added meta joy of the protagonist being an inspiration for one of the most iconic lovable losers in Hollywood history (well, until the ‘Rocky’ sequels, anyway).
Unfortunately, the party doesn’t last forever. At a certain point, Naomi Watts is introduced as an equally beautiful and cynical bartender with no real personality beyond how she might be able to save Wepner from all his woes. She might be playing the real boxer’s real wife in the real redemptive third act to his real life, but on screen it feels like a lazy salvation cliché and robs the movie of its delicately crafted sense of realism right at the finish line. It’s a shame to see ‘Chuck’ walk such a delicate balancing act for so long before stumbling into the obvious in time for a forced happy ending. That definitely hurts the film and makes it feel more average and conventional than it should.
Thankfully, everything leading up to that point is vividly crafted, moving, funny and downright entertaining. The movie a shaggy dog mild success in a genre dedicated to shaggy dog redemption stories. On a certain level, I suppose that’s an appropriate journey for this oddly meta bio flick.