1975. On the mean streets of New Jersey, a liquor salesman and sometime boxer tries to make a living and keep his self respect, and win the love of his girl. But when he’s pitted against the great boxer Muhammad Ali, he has the chance of the lifetime to prove himself… Sounds like an underdog, rags to riches story that would make a great movie, right? Well, Sylvester Stallone sure thought so. This is the story of Chuck Wepner, the real man who was the inspiration for the film Rocky. This movie tells his story from the cocaine highs to the crushing lows.
But Chuck is a little different than Rocky Balboa, even though he highly identified with the movie version of himself. Wepner (Schreiber) is a charming man who can’t seem to get out of his own way. He’s a man who loves the spotlight, but some part of him craves something that’s missing within himself. Something that drives him to cheat on his loving wife, let down his daughter and ultimately do time for dealing cocaine. It’s not until he finds that thing, that centre and self love, that he can really love a woman (Watts) and accept the love of his estranged family. Sound like an Oprah special? What I really love about this film is that even though that material could make for a really sappy, cheesey film, it does something beautiful and simple with it’s material. It has heart.
In some sense, watching this I felt like this was almost an anti-boxing film. It hits all the beats of boxing films as a genre but almost in an ironic way, often skewering the glamour and machismo of those films. It has a more colourful palette than most boxing films, not the usual grey, gritty tones, but rather a 70’s glam. Wepner cheats on his loyal wife, but it’s not made to look sexy or pretty, and in losing her, he loses something precious and a serious support network that he needs badly. It’s a sad moment. When he does cocaine, it’s funny, but also ugly, not glamourised. It seems a little tawdry and sad. And when he meets the man who made a movie out of his life, Stallone wants to be a friend but Chuck can’t help but sabotage himself and his chances to further his career.
Maybe that makes it sound depressing, but on the flipside, it’s a film with humour and colour. It’s vibrant. Wepner might be hapless, but Schreiber manages to show him as a man who is ultimately very likable, who has a warmth that draws people in. So many little moments in this film made me feel compassion for him, as he muddles his way through. You get the sense that he’s very human, he’s real. And while real life isn’t all glamour like a movie, sometimes that can make it a interesting story.
The supporting cast also do a fine turn in this film. Elizabeth Moss as his wife feels like a natural fit. She’s a woman who loves her husband, loves to see him shine, but ultimately won’t take being treated badly. She’s nobody’s fool, but she loves her husband and her pain is real. Ron Perlman is, well, there’s just something about a Perlman performance, isn’t there? He’s a colourful man, here made to look like a greasy boxing promoter and manager. And of course, Watts is wonderful as a kind of glamorous and tough bar tender, a brash and brassy red head with long fake nails and too much makeup who you can’t help but love, and who Wepner doesn’t stand a chance with. Everyone brings their own little something to this film, their own humour, toughness and vulnerability.
Personally, I’m a fan of a good ol’ boxing film. And I loved what this film did with the genre.
It’s a warm film, full of the colour and charm of Wepner’s personality, as channeled through Schreiber. It has that 70’s glamour and tone. It’s often funny and bright, but there’s darkness here handled without descending into melodrama. There is genuine great moments that journey into the character, hitting bottom and struggling with real world problems. There are some little wobbly bits in this film, the casting of Ali and Stallone felt kind of off and a bit cheesey, but it certainly doesn’t detract from the success of the film at all. If you’re a Rocky or sports film fan, this should be on your watch list for sure. And for those of you who feel like it all sounds a bit emotional, Chuck Wepner is a man who fights a bear in the boxing ring as a publicity stunt. Great viewing.
The Bleeder is out DVD & Blu-Ray on Monday!