Bleed For This is twelve rounds of tedium, a boring boxing movie that draws most of its strength from memories of other, better experiences. “Oh, here's a glimpse of our lead pugilist's mouthy sister? Yeah, that reminds me of The Fighter, which was pretty good. I guess this is good, too?” Maybe that sort of thing will fly when half-watching this on basic cable a few years from now, but as a fall festival premiere hoping to get into the awards season fight, one has to call a TKO.
Writer-director Ben Younger (Boiler Room) can bob and weave a bit, but is ultimately flattened by cliché. Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller) is a kid with heart. In case that isn't obvious, we get the line “ya got heart, kid,” in the first few minutes. That's the level of originality we're dealing with. Pazienza is determined to win and won't stop at anything, even if each fight lands him in the hospital. After the loss that opens the movie, his manager goes on HBO and says he's done.
But Pazeinza and his father (Ciarán Hinds, hiding behind chunky sunglasses and trading his Irish brogue for thick a Providence, Rhode Island Italian-American patois) demand one last shot. Not far away in upstate New York is the disgraced trainer Kevin Rooney, played by Aaron Eckhart with a beer gut and bald head. Rooney is the man who worked with the young Mike Tyson, but is now on the outs thanks to the bottle.
Yes, when I say Mike Tyson I mean the real Mike Tyson. Bleed For This is based on a true story, which is both a blessing and a curse. It means that, when you step away for a moment, you recognize not all that much happens in the story. But to its benefit you can say, “wow, that sure is something.”
The “sure is something” comes after the big fight. Pazienza wins, but days later he's in a horrible car accident. It's a miracle he's alive. The doctors say the safest bet to ensure he'll be able to walk would be to fuse his neck to his spine. But this means he'll never fight again. So he chooses the far more risky and painful “halo” surgery, which means putting a giant crown of screws around his head for six months. As such, Miles Teller looks like a cross between Frankenstein's Monster and a crucified Jesus for most of the picture.
Not only does Pazienza put his life at risk with every step he takes (his enormous head becoming the truck from Wages of Fear) he is selfish and sullen and makes his long-suffering mother (Katey Sagal) cry. He and Rooney begin secretly training in the basement (cue the AC/DC!) against any notion of common sense.
In classic boxing movies like Raging Bull and Rocky and Fat City our heroes are drawn to the ring because if they don't fight they'll simply cease to exist. Pazienza has a home, a family that loves him, plenty of Italian-American laughs around the table. Miles Teller, who certainly works his ass off in the role grunting and grimacing all over the place, has no concrete motivation other than some macho bullshit about being the best. I'll confess I spent the second half of the movie hoping this schmuck would sever his spine and learn a lesson, but he doesn't. He strives and he strives and finally he's allowed to beat another guy up on television. Hooray.
Miles Teller should ultimately be proud of the work he put into the role of Vinny Pazienza. He really gave it his all. But one day he'll look back at the sub-par way this movie was put together and think, “I bled for this?”