Hey, you know those movies about boxers whose lives are just as tumultuous outside the ring as they are within? ‘The Bleeder’ is one of those. It’s even based on a true story to theoretically maximize the hanky-soaking, teary-eyed potential of the piece. However, this one is thankfully far more entertaining than most movies of its ilk.
The big reason for that is that the movie is not exclusively about a rise-and-fall boxing career. In fact, most of the best material comes afterwards. The man at the center actually inspired one of the first inspirational boxing flicks, which plays directly into the story. Although ‘The Bleeder’ won’t win awards for originality anytime soon, the results are so much better than most might expect.
Liev Schreiber stars as Chuck Wepner. During the 1960s and ’70s, the big bonehead was a local legend in the New Jersey boxing circuit, nicknamed “The Bayonne Bleeder” because red stuff tended to gush from his eye during matches. He had a loving wife (played by Elisabeth Moss in the movie), a daughter, a gang of local fans, and only a mild self-destructive streak. At the peak of his career, Wepner’s manager (Ron Perlman) somehow got him a title shot against Muhammad Ali (Pooch Hall, doing a fantastic impression). He was too outmatched to win, but still lasted 15 rounds and even knocked the big guy down once. That inspired Sylvester Stallone to write ‘Rocky’, which furthered Wepner’s local celebrity and explosive ego. He also started hanging out with the wrong crowd (hilariously embodied by Jim Gaffigan and Jason Jones), learned why cocaine is a hell of a drug, lost his family, and eventually found himself in prison. Thankfully, that’s also when he met a beautiful bartender (Schreiber’s real-life wife Naomi Watts) built for providing a redemption arc to this story.
French-Canadian director Philippe Falardeau makes the film work by taking a surprisingly playful approach to his inspirational boxing bio-pic. He delights in toying with the bouncy cinematic visuals and tacky fashions of the 1970s, and pushes almost every scene in the direction of laughs. The movie plays almost like a bad behavior comedy tossed onto a boxing picture. Wepner’s fight career is over by the halfway point in order to cram in more eccentric character asides and a drug-fueled downfall.
Shreiber is charmingly dumb and charismatic in the lead role, presenting Wepner as a man with more heart than brains and oodles of charisma to go with his self-destructive tendencies. The Ali and Stallone impersonations are amusing. While Gaffigan, Jones and Schreiber keep the cocaine insanity funny, the movie never loses its moral center.
The only problem is that by the time Falardeau gets around to closing on a big moral, he doesn’t seem particularly interested. The late-inning love story between Schreiber and Watts is far too rushed to work, and succeeds more as stunt casting than as an emotional core for the finale. ‘The Bleeder’ never quite pulls on the heartstrings as effectively as it wants to and kind of fades out toward the end. Thankfully, it’s a fun ride while it lasts and Falardeau laces the tale with enough cleverly earned meta touches (including Wepner’s ironically appropriate love of ‘Requiem for a Heavyweight’) to avoid feeling like pure boxing movie cliché. ‘The Bleeder’ is far from a perfect movie, but it’s also far more entertaining than most recent entries in this tiresome genre have been.