In 1975 Chuck Wepner, a bruiser nicknamed The Bayonne Bleeder because he won most fights not by technique but thanks to his ability to withstand numerous blows to the head (and tendency to bleed a lot), was pulled from relative obscurity to fight Muhammad Ali for the world’s Heavyweight title. It was largely a novelty fight, and Chuck did not win. But he did knock Ali down and went only 19 seconds short of a full 15 rounds with the champ, which is a lot more than anyone can say about your dad.
If that story sounds familiar, that just means you’ve seen Rocky, the story for which was inspired by Wepner in a number of surprising ways. And if you’ve seen Rocky, you’ve seen a masterpiece. If you see Chuck, on the other hand, you’ll see what basically amounts to an interesting special feature on a Rocky Blu-ray.
There is something to be said for taking the tried and true sports formula, which Rocky helped establish, and bring it down to its grimy “real” origins. The way Chuck’s story lines up with and diverts from Rocky Balboa’s will be of great interest to Rocky fans who don’t have access to Wikipedia. Everyone else may have trouble enjoying Chuck however. Its biggest problem is Chuck himself. The film asserts there is some variation of a heart of gold within him but doesn’t do a great job getting that across. He’s persistent and never says no to a challenge. But he’s also obnoxious and stupid to a degree which doesn’t inspire much sympathy once he enters the “constantly destroying his life” part of the story. If there’s any charm to the guy, it all belongs to Liev Schreiber’s performance, which is good but not enough to make you like a guy who is essentially unlikable.
Which makes Chuck an interesting example of why Hollywood often does what it does. Chuck and Rocky’s stories are nearly identical. The differences are within the men themselves and how they are presented. One is real and one is fictional. One’s a jackass and one’s a lovable sweetheart. One story is true, and one story is better. Sylvester Stallone took Chuck’s details and shaped it into a heartwarming masterpiece. Chuck’s story all by itself just kind of makes you frustrated.
But again, Rocky fanatics will find stuff to adore, particularly once Morgan Spector enters the film as Sylvester Stallone himself. Spector doesn’t quite look like Stallone (especially beefy late ‘70s Stallone) but his voice and attitude is spot on. The film is surprisingly kind to Stallone, as well, illustrating how eager the actor was to give Chuck an acting spot in Rocky II (which he blows). In real life, Wepner sued Stallone for taking his life story and they settled out of court, a bit of bad blood the film chooses to ignore. And it’s up to you and your memory to draw the parallel between Chuck fighting Andre the Giant - which really happened - and Rocky going up against Hulk “Thunderlips” Hogan in Rocky III.
Chuck isn’t a hard watch. It has a superb cast - including Ron Perlman, Naomi Watts, Elizabeth Moss and Jim Gaffigan - but it’s so extraordinarily by the numbers you might as well just stop with the trailer. The boxing filmmaking isn’t particularly special or dynamic. In fact, the movie is weirdly anti-excitement - there’s one egregious bit of business where Chuck boxes a fucking bear and we don’t even get to see it. The film simply isn’t interested in boxing, just the man, and just what’s wrong with the man. I mean, when Rocky trains, he trains. When he acts like an idiot and goes broke, he picks himself up and gets back in the ring with Apollo. Chuck’s Rocky II is doing coke and throwing his family away.
You could do worse than watch Chuck. It’s not bad so much as bland, a story you’ve seen a million times, this time adorned with a Rocky twist. It all depends on how much value that has for you. As a big Rocky fan, I had to see it once. Now that that’s done, I don’t ever have to watch it again.