It’s to the credit of the boxing picture “Bleed For This” that it goes nine, ten, or maybe even 11 rounds before it’s clear just which way the final decision is going to go. That’s not a reference to the outcome of the movie’s climactic 1990s match between Miles Teller’s real-life Vinny Paz character and Roberto Duran, but rather the movie’s own bout between its better instincts and the need to wrap up on the most simplistically crowd-pleasing note possible. That it finally errs way on the side of sports-movie conventionality won’t dim its commercial prospects, although it does make it the outlier at a festival like Telluride, where the film had its world premiere Friday night.
At least “Bleed For This” easily comes out on top in the battle of fall 2016’s boxing films involving “Raging Bull” alumni, the other, of course, being Robert DeNiro’s fresh flop, “Hands of Stone.” ‘Bleed’ bears Martin Scorsese’s imprimatur as one of the credited executive producers, if not enough of his actual sensibility, but it has the somewhat offbeat visual quirks and editing rhythms of a superior arthouse film, before it goes cornier and shallower than a mid-franchise “Rocky” installment at the final bell.
What it stands as more than anything is an effective calling card for writer-director Ben Younger, who made an impressive debut with 2000’s “Boiler Room” and then dropped off the Hollywood radar after 2005’s “Prime.” When things are cooking in “Bleed for This,” he mixes surprisingly funny blue-collar dialogue with long, brooding looks from a terrific cast to the persuasive point that it really takes the predictability of a final showdown to let you start thinking just how thinly drawn all these “youse”- and “Ma”-spouting characters are.
There’s some obvious fictionalizing going on here, starting with the fact that, after breaking his neck in an automobile accident, the real Paz (or Pazienza) didn’t actually fight against Duran in his very first return to the ring after his recovery, but did that many fights later. But, even condensed for Hollywood purposes, Paz’s story is obviously a feel-good one, which somewhat hamstrings a writer-director who you can feel chafing against the constraints of fidelity to sheer uplift.
Paz experiences plenty of ups and downs in the ring before that rivetingly filmed accident ever occurs… and plenty of visits to strip clubs, ensuring that ‘Bleed’ earns its R rating in the first 15 minutes and has more gyrating female nudity than two seasons’ worth of “The Sopranos.” Before and after the crash, he’s a pawn between his blustery father and sometimes manager — Ciran Hinds with mouth permanently fixed in an open-mouth — and a down-on-his-luck trainer played by everyone’s go-to guy when you need a growly-voiced, pot-bellied loser with a lower-class accent and a Jason Alexander hairline: Aaron Eckhart.
At some point in the proceedings you may start focusing on just how severely all the supporting characters in frame are playing against type, or at least severely made up, including not just the nearly unrecognizable Eckart and not quite as disguised Hinds but Katey Sagal, channeling Edie Falco as the chain-smoking Ma in question. It would be distracting if it weren’t so much fun watching them (and Ted Levine as a not entirely scrupulous promoter) chew things up, even if at times the crowded domestic scenes feel a little ‘Fighter’ redux.
And Teller? He’s done some transforming, too — building his abs as surely as Eckart let his gut go for his role — and he shows additional courage in staying true to the real Paz’s late ‘80s/early ‘90s porn ‘stache. As with “Whiplash,” where he basically played an asshole-in-training, Teller is ideally cast as someone whose very profession demands a lack of cuddliness that is also the actor’s stock in trade. He’s terrific not just in the visceral punching scenes but the anti-visceral ones that dominate the middle part of the movie, when his neck and head are immobilized in the “halo” contraption that literally screws right into his brow. (When Paz insists on having the screws removed without anesthesia, Teller gives good screaming, too.)
But is he an actor who can do romantic chemistry? That’s still open to question here, as early scenes with a low-rent, high-heeled, frequently nude girlfriend — who goes away after an amusing make-out scene involving the halo ends with her complaining that “my f—ing hair is caught in your f—ing thing” — gives way to all of 10 seconds spent at a family dinner with a more wholesome GF. You wonder if any scenes of actual tenderness with Paz and a love interest might have been scripted and abandoned… a question that recurs when the subject of his dad’s likely adultery is raised briefly and never addressed again.
As enjoyable as it is spending time with these people and these actors, no one evidences any personal growth, least of all Teller’s champ, who’s all about stick-to-it-iveness from start to finish, give or take a few errant moments at the gambling table and nudie bar. Watching the trailer, you might think the crux of the movie will be the moral dilemma Vinny and his posse face when the question arises of whether to have an operation that will ensure his safety but ruin his ability to box or proceed with the riskier one that will allow him to re-endanger his life in the ring. Problem: for Vinny, there’s no dilemma, and there doesn’t seem to be one for anyone making the movie, either. If you have any compunctions about men beating the hell out of each other for profit, a film in which it’s seen as virtuous for someone to risk his life to keep doing that — even though, unlike ‘The Fighter,” there’s not really much at stake except a diminishment of pride — is not the ambiguous boxing movie for you. But if you ever yearned to see a version of “Million Dollar Baby” that has a completely feel-good last reel, this may be it.
A very quick denouement after the final bout promises some kind of life lesson that the hero has learned via his comeback, but all it amounts to is a few sentences. Vinny offers a reporter about the importance of always doing the things that people insist you can’t do — a sophomoric declaration treated as if it’s the wisdom of Sophocles. Which still leaves open the question begged by the title: Bleed for what, again, exactly? [B-/C+]