Bleed For This turns an incredible true story about one the greatest sporting comebacks into a boxing film everyone has seen before.
All the great boxing films are rarely just about boxing. In fact, they must be about something more in order to succeed because the cinematic structure of a boxing film is so generic. A protagonist wants glory, but before he can achieve it he must be brought down by hubris. A new, unconventional trainer and montage later, the protagonist is ready for another shot. A small set back on the way now only makes him stronger. He overcomes his hubristic nature. He wins.
That’s why masterpieces like Raging Bull, Rocky, Creed (yes, Creed) are all about something more than the sport. The boxing ring is simply a stage upon which Jake LaMotta, Rocky and Adonis bare their souls, their very being; it’s not the focus, it’s the magnifying glass that reveals the very essence of the protagonists. Passion, love, hope – these are the title belts the boxers are fighting for. They don’t want a shot at glory, they want a shot at what glory means.
Ryan Coogler’s continuation of the Rocky saga through perhaps shows best how a great boxing film isn’t just about boxing. Adonis isn’t fighting because he wants the glory; he is fighting because he is tormented by the boxer father he never knew. Hating him and loving him in equal, miscible measures. Boxing is just the way he can process his emotions. As he tells Rocky, sometimes he imagines he is fighting his own father. Even then Coogler takes it even further, bringing in wider, highly relevant discussions about race, the paths we choose and the paths that are chosen for us. Can you do something that you love even if it’s the thing that kills you? It’s a leitmotif refracted throughout Creed.
Watching Bleed For This, Ben Younger’s biopic about what is often described as “the greatest comeback in boxing history” could have been, as the quote suggests, one of the greatest boxing films. It could have explored similar questions as Creed: can, should you pursue something that makes you feel most alive, yet is the one thing that will kill you? Unfortunately it doesn’t.
On paper Bleed For This has everything, a real-life story about a young boxer, Vinny Paz (Miles Teller) who doesn’t know when to quit, being brought down by an accident that very nearly severs his spinal chord. He has to spend six months wearing a huge neck brace, ironically called a Halo, and there is a strong chance he may never walk again, let alone box. But that doesn’t stop Paz. To him boxing is everything, and the risk of paralysis or death is irrelevant because that’s what he feels when he’s not boxing.
As he says, people tell him he will never box again and are already treating like he was actually killed in the accident – that’s no life. Taking up coaching kids and telling them he was once a world champion is his idea of hell.
And yet, is it? Is it really hell? The film certainly doesn’t make it clear. Sitting in a huge, medieval-looking contraption, Teller doesn’t look terrified of being licked by infernal flames. He looks mildly bored, almost as if he knows everything will be ok, because it turned out that way in real-life. For a true story where the stakes were so insanely high (the guy broke his neck!), Bleed For This feels like a walk in the park on a sunny day when thunderstorms were promised.
Apart from two short wince-inducing scenes where the Halo is clearly hindering Vinny, it doesn’t really get in the way of his training or even his mental state. In fact, the whole car crash that put him in his current condition, seems to have done very little damage to Vinny.
Perhaps Bleed For This’ fatal flaw is that it doesn’t use its incredible cast well. Maybe if the actors, including Katey Sagal (who chewed the scenery as Sons of Anarchy’s Machiavellian matriarch), were given more to do, then the film could have been much more resonant. Instead, Sagal, as Vinny’s mother, is reduced to looking slightly worried once in a while. His father (played by Ciarán Hinds, another scenery chewer) is supposed to be a difficult, obstreperous character who is more than happy to have his son leave it all in the ring, isn’t given anything worthwhile. Even Aaron Eckhart can’t land any punches as a drunken, balding, fat trainer.
Amusingly, when the credits roll, Bleed For This elects to show clips of the real-life Vinny and his family next to the actors’ names. You see how much life and passion these people really have; their foibles and idiosyncrasies revealed after only a two-second clip. Bleed For This couldn’t capture that in two hours. 2/5
Please note this review was originally published as part of our London Film Festival coverage in October.
If you fancy watching a slightly worse, yet more fun movie featuring muscly men kicking ten bells of shit out of each other – check out Kickboxer: Vengeance.