Have you ever seen a boxing movie? Then congratulations, you’ve seen Miles Teller’s new movie, Bleed For This. Based on real events surrounding boxer Vinny Pazienza, Bleed For This is one of those biopics that, despite being essentially true, seems too cliché to be anything but a Hollywood story. Bleed hits every well-trod beat and expectation of the genre, and is such a rote exercise it might as well be called Boxing: The Movie, or Sports Comeback: The True Hollywood Story.
Bleed For This depicts the unique recovery of Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller) after a car wreck seriously injures his spine. Or rather, the best part of Bleed For This depicts the recovery of “Paz”. The rest of the movie is a standard boxing movie, complete with conflicted trainer, exploitative family, and a half-hearted love interest the movie forgets about five minutes after she’s introduced. (It really makes you appreciate Bianca in Creed, who comes complete with her own goals and desires and proper screen time.) Bleed is more or less the Italian-American version of The Fighter, with bonus spinal injury.
The boxing stuff in Bleed isn’t really special—like Hands of Stone, the fight scenes are okay but after Creed they just seem anti-climactic—and there’s little about the family dynamics we haven’t already seen, but the cast is pretty terrific and manages to elevate the material and make it seem stronger than it is. Ciaran Hinds does his best Albert Finney impression as Paz’s manager/father, and Katey Sagal is terrific as Paz’s mother. But the stand-out performances belong to Miles Teller and Aaron Eckhart as Kevin Rooney, Paz’s trainer.
Teller is tremendously watchable even when he’s not trying—when he IS trying, he can command the screen, which he does here, going toe to toe with Eckhart, who gives one of his best performances of late as Rooney. They’re underserved by the script, though, which never really latches onto the demons driving both men.
Why is Paz so determined to fight again, even after his spine is nearly severed? The best Bleed can offer is “because I’m a fighter”, which seems kind of weak in the face of potentially permanent paralysis if he takes one wrong punch. (The subtext suggests it’s “because my father failed to instill any self-worth in me except that which I can offer as a champion boxer”, but I’m not sure that is actually intentional.) And Rooney, an alcoholic who was fired by Mike Tyson, is left completely unexamined. Paz even brings up Rooney leaving Tyson’s training team, and Rooney, and the movie by extension, simply refuses to discuss it.
These are the avenues that could make Bleed more than just a standard boxing movie, but writer/director Ben Younger (Boiler Room) doesn’t seem interested in real character development. Instead, Bleed is focused squarely on Paz’s near-miraculous comeback after that devastating spinal injury sustained in a car crash. (Teller himself was in a pretty bad car wreck during his college days, which left those trademark scars on his face. One wonders if that was part of the appeal of this story, to play a fellow survivor who thrived after injury.)
But it walks into Hacksaw Ridge territory of inadvertently putting down people who aren’t exactly like the protagonist, as Bleed accidentally suggests that if only you work hard enough, you too can recover from severe spinal injury. Vinny Pazienza’s comeback is an incredible story, but he was also incredibly LUCKY. The movie never really acknowledges the role of luck in his recovery, and therefore ends up implying that all anyone with a spinal injury needs to do is just lift weights and you’ll be fine.
Boxing fans and fans of boxing movies will probably like Bleed For This well enough. It’s competently made and Vinny Pazienza’s story is interesting. The fights aren’t as exciting as Creed’s, but to be fair, probably none will be until Creed 2. Boxing movies are pretty much all the same, and Bleed For This is certainly no exception, but it’s not bad. It’s just your average boxing movie about a scrappy fighter making a scrappy comeback supported by his scrappy family.
Here’s Miles at the Las Vegas premiere of Bleed For This last night.