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'Bleed for This': Middleweight Contender
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
05:08PM / Saturday, November 26, 2016
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Miles Teller is convincing as the pugnacious protagonist, a portrayal only enhanced by its decidedly two-dimensional take.

To accent boxer Vinny Pazienza's close-knit family in director-writer Ben Younger's "Bleed for This," turning points in the pugilist's remarkable saga are inevitably marked by the clan crowded around the dinner table eating, with hardly room for a bread stick among them. There is a basic, anthropological purity in the devotion, an incontrovertible given, as each member, whether laughing, chiding or worrying out loud, plays out his or her supportive role in the dynamic. The conceptualization is as engaging as the accompanying tale of fisticuffs.

Based on a true story, the travail that was "The Pazmanian Devil's" career should please boxing fans who know the history, and perhaps viewers in general who appreciate a good old struggle against overwhelming odds. Miles Teller is convincing as the pugnacious protagonist, a portrayal only enhanced by its decidedly two-dimensional take. There is a hyper-reality here. While there are glimpses of Pazienza's personality outside of the ring and his dedication to the nuclear unit, he isn't "Rocky," a "dem and dose" philosopher, or a pug who talks to pigeons.

Rather, tutored to the whims and wiles of the prizefighting game by his gym-owning father in a blue collar section of Providence, Rhode Island, he is completely focused on his craft. But early problems of keeping the pounds off in lower weight classes, visits to the hospital due to related dehydration and a couple of losses cause him to seek a mentor outside the familiar pale. Meet Kevin Rooney … boxing guru extraordinaire, inspiring influence and repeat DWI offender. Portrayed with whimsically inspired credibility by Aaron Eckhart, he almost steals the show.

Expect the usual prodigy-coach antipathy and positive electricity as the relationship evolves, and then, just when it looks like Kevin has found the formula for his star pupil's potential path to the championship, kablooey!  It is a dreadful, impactful scene, its split-second horror shown repeatedly in flashback, not only to stress the importance of keeping one's eye on the road, but also, in a more philosophical vein, to stress the fragility of life. Now, everything has changed.

Harking back to almost every boxing-flick, coming out of a coma Vinny looks up at the doctor and, in defiant denial of what he no doubt senses, asks how long it'll be before he can climb back in the ring. Of course, also true to hackneyed convention, the shocked doc quietly confides that he's not sure the fighter will even walk again. His neck is broken, attached by hardly a ligament. Well, why stop the clichés there? Of course, that's all the challenge our tough, single-minded soul needs to be a suitable subject for a feature-length film about human determination.

Curious almost to a fault, Vinny issues hardly a notion of self-pity or even a smidgen of fear that he might live the rest of his life in a wheelchair. But that would be the human reaction as opposed to how the totally disassociated fighting machine that occupies his body processes information. He instantly plots a comeback from the near Great Beyond. The metal, neck-supporting "halo" screwed into his head amplifies the eerie severity of it all. The idea that one false move can cut this tale short causes us to squirm whenever he makes an abrupt motion.

It's a positive testament to the film that even though we may know how it all eventually plays out, we are nonetheless absorbed in the process. Moods and emotions incur our own experiential empathy, like when in the shadowy, sullen and antiseptically cold hospital room filmmaker Younger's camera focuses on the chair next to the bed. Unless one has lived a charmed life, you know that chair is the second worst place in the world. Miles Teller's Vinny gains our fandom.

Insofar as dyed-in-the-wool boxing fans might be concerned, while the ring sequences don't approximate the choreographic excellence achieved in "Cinderella Man" (2005) or the fantasy pummeling that the "Rocky" franchise championed, there is a viscera-stirring authenticity. And just for old time's sake, whether fictional convenience or fact, the script's insertion of a treacly melodrama between Vinny and his suddenly remorseful dad right before the Big Fight supplies that well-worn, anxious uncertainty that no self-respecting boxing movie can resist.

Granted, the film is not a total knockout, and the human interest angle will doubtfully override understandable objections by vehement detractors of what was once called the manly art. But for those either still on the fence, or who believe that trying to beat someone into unconsciousness is perfectly reasonable entertainment, "Bleed for This" is a winner by, albeit morally split, decision.  

"Bleed for This," rated R, is an Open Road Films release directed by Ben Younger and stars Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart and Ciarán Hinds. Running time: 117 minutes

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