'Bleed for this' captures what it means to be a fighter
For more than a decade and a half, my typical work week is hard to explain. Especially the part of keeping an eye on chiseled men taking center stage and stripping down to bikini briefs. A Chippendales consultant, I'm not. Boxing weigh-ins are unlike anything else in sports. Calling fights week after week on national TV fosters an appreciation for them, the texture and passion of the sport is why it's one of Hollywood's all-time favorite storytelling crutches to lean on. At least parts of it are.
The overused late-round drama crescendo is an easy go-to for directors. But the day before the fight weigh-in? It's mostly ignored. Or it's dismissed as a convenient scripted smack-talk moment.
Then comes the 2016 biopic "Bleed For This," the story about former five-time champion Vinny Paz. In what is as authentic a scene I have ever enjoyed in a fight film, native New Yorker Ben Younger perfectly captures the weigh-in for Paz's fight against Roger Mayweather 26 years earlier. He gets it. His film gets it.
Forget the hackneyed approach to rating a boxing flick. You know the sports fan review where bona fides are based on how valid the in-the-ring action looks. Although it is quite good, it doesn't need to apply here.
What Younger and his team were able to do in the opening 10 minutes of "Bleed For This" impressed me. It drew me in. It revealed enough of the world champion Paz to demand I needed to know it all. And for lead actor Miles Teller, it probably revealed more than he ever thought he'd have to as well.
Teller, who has a lot of natural born fighter traits to him, was on the scale in nothing but a small swath of animal print. As the real-life Vinny told him during production, "Stuff a banana in your undies." From that outrageously entertaining opening round this film goes on to stuff a lot into its power punch.
I've known the real-life characters fairly well for many years now. They are mined from the cross-section of society boxing exposes us to and welcomes in.
Vinny Paz grew up in Providence, Rhode Island -- a hard working prideful town that is a character unto itself in the film. The Pazienza family was woven into Vinny's life tighter than the canvas tautly pulled over the local ring mat he called home.
His manager, Lou Duva, was captured well by veteran actor Ted Levine. And as for the role of trainer Kevin Rooney, it was a superb job climbing a challenging mountain of portrayal by Aaron Eckhart.
I first met the real-life Rooney when I was 15 years old. I was a fan ringside at a local club show and he was in the corner of soon-to-be heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. Years later, I was now the boxing expert, still talking the sweet science with Rooney as he was in the later stages of an often interrupted career. Alcohol abuse and this game can take a toll. You play baseball and basketball. You don't play boxing. Eckhart gave us an excellent glimpse of the real Rooney.
"Bleed For This" does what many fight films fail to do. It defines the champion from the inside out. It takes us into his psyche.
It doesn't play on underdog themes overcoming impossible odds. It doesn't care if the champ is winning to right some wrong or avenge some injustice. It doesn't try to wow you with a dramatic get-up-off-the-canvas climbs.
Yes, it's a comeback story. However, it's really a story of understanding what it means to be a fighter. To be wired differently from the rest.
Heavyweight king of yesteryear Jack Dempsey was wont to say, "A champion is someone who gets up even when they can't."
That is what "Bleed For This" captures. And it's exactly why it will capture your attention.