‘Bleed For This’ carried by one-two punch of Teller and Eckhart, but has screws loose
Much like its protagonist, Bleed For This is gritty, wild, and carried by strong performances, but still has some clear imperfections.
The film, written and directed by Ben Younger, is based on the true story of Vinny "Paz" Pazienza (portrayed by Miles Teller), the world champion boxer that suffered a broken neck in a car accident at the height of his career.
Told that he may never walk or fight again, doctors present Paz with two choices in the immediate aftermath of the accident: He can either get a spinal fusion that ensures he’ll be able to walk but never fight, or receive a correctional "halo" that brings a risk of paralysis (or even death) but gives his body a chance to heal naturally. Hell-bent on fighting again, Paz chooses to spent six months with the halo.
The movie details the boxer’s incredible path back into the ring and, ultimately, a championship belt. Along the way, he’s carried by fierce determination and a loyal — though sometimes constricting — support system comprised, in part, by his trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart) and his father (Ciaran Hinds).
Usually when a movie gets slapped with "based on a true story" label, it’s safe to assume that details are juiced up and exaggerated to better fit the scope of Hollywood. But, according to Younger, the story of Paz’s rehabilitation and recovery from the devastating car wreck was actually so extraordinary that he felt the need to rewrite it to be more believable in a feature film.
“Vinny’s story is so sensational, we didn’t have to embellish at all. In fact, we had to pull back,” Younger told FOX Sports at the film premiere in Providence, RI. “Vinny started lifting weights five days after the halo went on. We couldn’t show that in the movie, because no one would believe it. So we [changed it] to like a month after the halo went on.”
For better or for worse, other notable boxing movies (recent examples include Michael B. Jordan’s "Creed" and Jake Gyllenhaal’s "Southpaw") have been more ambitious in their aim to develop subplots outside of the ring — whether it be through romantic relationships, inter-character conflicts or anything of the like.
But "Bleed for This" is a boxing movie. It’s almost exclusively about Paz’s love affair with boxing, the accident that nearly ended that relationship, and his borderline insane refusal to walk away from the sport. There’s very little in the way of character development or story origin, leaving somewhat of a disconnect between viewer and subject(s). To call it a vignette would be much more fair than a biopic.
Fortunately, the story of Vinny Paz is incredible enough that the film was never going to be dull. It certainly helps that the film’s two main billings of Teller and Eckhart delivered very strong performances and had great chemistry. (Most importantly, as someone born and raised in Boston, they didn’t overdo it on the New England accents.)
Younger, who very clearly placed an emphasis on conveying Paz’s blue-collar roots in Providence, said that a big reason he cast Teller in the role — in addition to his acting chops — was because he hails from a blue-collar city himself (Philadelphia) and isn’t a prototypical Hollywood "pretty boy." (Ironically, facial scars from a car accident in his teenage years helped Teller get the role.)
According to Teller, he didn’t work super closely with Paz for the film, but did need to consult him for a specific scene central to the story.
“There were a few moments that I needed his guidance, mostly with the halo when he’s starting to work out. I had no idea how anyone could do that," Teller told FOX Sports. "I couldn’t figure it out, so I had Vinny come on set and show me.”
So while "Bleed For This" isn’t exactly a knockout punch that is going to take home Oscar-worthy praise, it’s an admirable and enjoyable — though arguably safe and one-dimensional — example of storytelling.
Though some aspects of Vinny Paz’s inspiring comeback were actually determined to be too incomprehensible even for Hollywood, Teller and Eckhart did a commendable job selling a story worth sharing and the personalities that made it reality.