Very well-made, very sweet-natured and very, very familiar: how strange that Philippe Falardeau‘s “Chuck,” a based-in-truth film about pretty much the definition of a confrontational sport — boxing — should feel cozy as a down comforter from beginning to end. Maybe it’s that the picture signals a love for its flawed-but-forgivable central character Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner early on, so that we’re aware nothing very bad will happen (or if it does, he’ll learn his lesson). Or maybe it’s the fondly nostalgic cast of the ’70s setting and the accurate evocation of the movies of that period, right down to DP Nicolas Bolduc‘s lively imagery being rendered in the slightly oversaturated fuzziness of the era’s film stock. Or maybe it’s that a charmingly committed and convincing bearish Liev Schreiber, as Wepner, chats affably in voiceover, “Goodfellas“-style, like he himself is watching the film unfold, gently chastising or excusing himself for his worst past excesses. Or maybe it’s simply that, in being the “true story” of a man who already inspired an Oscar-winning fiction (Wepner was the loose model for Rocky Balboa), “Chuck” largely adheres to the formula that its inspiration inspired. Still, credit is due that its familiarity feels less like the ineffectual repetition of platitudes (hi, “Southpaw” we’re subtweeting you), and more like bumping into a pal you haven’t seen in a while. In the case of the overpopulated boxing movie category, someone you haven’t seen in at least a week.
When we meet Wepner, it’s not so much that he’s past it (his greatest glory lies ahead), nor even that he’s given up on being the best at his sport. It’s more that he’s already aware that he’ll only ever luck into a shot at greatness. It’s a very specific moment that presumably most athletes — those who never quite get their own wing in any particular Hall of Fame — reach at some stage: the tipping point between the idea of yourself as so bright a talent you’ll burn all who stand in your way, and the moment that ambition is tarnished by reality and you accept that fluking is also a viable route to success. Chuck is married to Phyll (Elisabeth Moss, being great in a relatively thankless role), and they have a daughter, young enough at this stage to seem unaffected by Wepner’s benign neglect, especially with the tireless Phyll amply compensating for any parenting gaps. They’re lifelong residents of Bayonne, and the film is also a fond love letter to the New Jersey town and more generally to the notion of blue-collar civic pride. Chuck has made a modest name for himself as a boxer, picking up his despised nickname along the way due in part to a propensity to bleed freely (“You hemophiliac!” is one of the more educated insults thrown his way), and in part due to a propensity for getting hit so much that bleeding is inevitable. Wepner, who can take a lot of punches before he falls down, neither floats like a butterfly nor stings like a bee; he fights like a rhino and bleeds like a stuck pig.
Through the good offices of his manager (an underused Ron Perlman), but more due to the backstage machinations of Don King (never seen, often mentioned), Wepner, who is almost resigned to tapping out at “local hero” level while working for a liquor delivery service, has his name thrown in the hat for a shot against George Foreman, the heavyweight champion at the time. He just has to sit tight and wait for Foreman to dispatch Muhammed Ali at the “Rumble In The Jungle” in Zaire, a foregone conclusion if ever there was one (Spoiler: Ali wins). The dream seems to be over for Wepner, until, mainly by virtue of being the only white guy of note in the same weight class, and King wanting to make this fight “about race,” he gets to go up against Ali. What happens there is a matter of record, but “Chuck,” which has surprisingly few boxing scenes (though they’re effective when they come), is far more interested in the consequences outside the ring — the fame, the philandering, the fall, and especially, the film: “Rocky.”
If Falardeau, who previously directed the Oscar-nominated “Monsieur Lazhar,” adds a string to the boxing-movie bow, it’s that unlike most of the many lesser films in an often lunkheaded genre, “Chuck” tacitly admits its unoriginality, yet turns it into a virtue. It’s a boxing movie expressly in thrall to boxing movies: the great Anthony Quinn film “Requiem for a Heavyweight” features explicitly, with Wepner able to recite snatches of its dialogue, which essentially amount to the credo of the nearly-man, from memory. But it’s also in love with the glamor, fame and the promise of self-creation that movies offer in general. After “Rocky” is released in 1976, Wepner starts behaving like a star, or his unsophisticated idea of one — sex with anonymous women, wearing pimp coats, and doing lots of drugs (enabled and abetted by his best friend, played with daffy affability by Jim Gaffigan). He even gets to meet Sylvester Stallone (Morgan Spector), and though Wepner has grounds for being at least piqued by Stallone’s unsanctioned appropriation of his story, and though the now-megastar Stallone could easily be reluctant to hang out with this nobody, they hit it off, because they’re both so damn nice.
But then, everybody is nice in the antagonist-free “Chuck,” except for Wepner, occasionally. Whenever that happens, nice voiceover-Wepner is there to remind us that it was but a kink on the path to eventual niceness. Even his estranged, unimpressed brother (Michael Rapaport) is redeemed by the discovery that he’s secretly been following his elder sibling’s exploits avidly all this time, and by an eleventh-hour grand gesture. It could easily get cloying, and the self-serving nature of such comfily amiable portrayals is laid bare with an epilogue showing the real-life Wepner with his second wife Linda (played in the film by a sarky, savvy Naomi Watts): unlike “Rocky,” this film had Wepner’s blessing from the off.
But even the most potentially groan-worthy reconciliations and realizations are delivered in such flatly unadorned New Jersey accents and with such gruff, unsentimental gumption that, within the parameters of the rise-and-fall-and-rise again boxing drama, they work. Wepner’s story, however rose-tinted this portrayal, is valuable because stories of nearly-men, reframed priorities and the consolations of ordinary decency are always valuable: life, contrary to a line spoken in the rather too neat ending, is never “like the movies.” No one wins against it; the best you can hope for is that you’ll go the full fifteen rounds and still be on your feet at the end. Even if you’re bleeding. [B]
This is a reprint of our review of “Chuck” from the 2017 Venice Film Festival, where it screened under its original title “The Bleeder.” The film opens in theaters on Friday, May 5th.