Ladies and gentlemen, it’s now time for the main event of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, coming to you live from the beautiful, historic Elgin Theatre.
Introducing first, in the red corner, standing six feet five inches and weighing 223 pounds, with a professional record of 35 wins, including 17 by knockout, 14 losses and 2 draws, the former New Jersey State heavyweight champion, from Bayonne, New Jersey, please welcome from the Bleeder, Chuck “The Real Rocky” Wepner!!
His opponent, in the blue corner, standing five feet eight inches and weighing in at 170 pounds, with a professional record of 50 wins, 30 by knockout, against 10 losses, fighting out of Providence, Rhode Island, a former world champion in the lightweight, light middleweight, and super middleweight divisions, from Bleed for This, please welcome Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza!!
Jay was gracious enough to agree to include not one, but two boxing biopics in our TIFF schedule: The Bleeder, starring Liev Schrieber, and Bleed for This, starring Miles Teller. In an all-out battle to capture my vote, who came out on top? Let’s go ringside and find out!
The Bleeder opens perfectly, introducing us to a guy we know even though we don’t know it. That guy is Chuck Wepner, a human punching bag who took a punch so well he could go 15 rounds with anyone, even the Greatest. Yes, the man himself, Muhammad Ali. Wepner got the fight because he was the only white guy in the top ten, and during the fight he acquitted himself so well that he inspired Sylvester Stallone to write Rocky.
Along with taking a punch, Wepner’s other notable trait is the ability to consistently make the worst possible decision. To the credit of Wepner and the Bleeder, the movie does not pull any punches with Wepner’s character. He is a flawed person but the kind of flawed person who you can’t help but be charmed by. Liev Schrieber is almost unrecognizable as Wepner and does a fantastic job of showcasing the charm while also making us feel for Chuck as he suffers some severe consequences, including losing his family and going to prison.
In the end, the Bleeder does justice to the Real Rocky’s story and gives us a true underdog who makes good in a real way, in his own way. Somehow, the Real Rocky turns out to be the furthest thing from a cliche, and yet still manages to come out on top in the end.
Bleed for This:
While the Bleeder features the Real Rocky, Bleed for This features a comeback story too unbelievable to be used as a plotline in the Rocky franchise. And that’s saying something considering Rocky has come back from: (a) Mickey being shoved to death by Mr. T; (b) Apollo being beaten to death by Drago; and (c) Adrien being written to death by Stallone as a convenient reason to make yet another goddamn Rocky movie.
Miles Teller makes a good showing as Vinny Pazienza, a champion boxer whose neck was broken in a car crash. Told by doctors that he may never walk again, Paz somehow was able to return to the ring just 13 months after his accident and went on to fight boxing legends like Roberto Duran and Roy Jones Jr. Teller looks like Paz and looks like he belongs in the ring, but in the transition to the screen the real-life magic that Paz possessed is lost and Bleed for This ends up feeling like just another boxing movie. And that’s a shame, because overcoming this level of adversity should truly feel triumphant.
The Judges’ Decision:
The match goes the distance as both the Bleeder and Bleed for This are enjoyable films with charismatic turns by their stars. There can only be one champion though, and by unanimous decision The Bleeder takes the belt. The Bleeder is far more memorable because it’s not your typical happy ending, and it’s less about boxing and more about the trappings of fame.
The bottom line is that if you like boxing, you’ll enjoy both of these. The difference maker is that even if you don’t like boxing, I am still confident in recommending that you watch the Bleeder. It’s a fascinating story that captures the essence of the most interesting loser imaginable, a story so powerful that it inspired an entire movie genre. It’s a credit to Paz and his tenacity that things were even this close, as in the end Rocky always wins.