Review: The Bleeder (TIFF 2016)
PLOT: The true story of boxer Chuck Wepner (Liev Schreiber) the real-life inspiration for ROCKY.
REVIEW: If you’re a ROCKY fan, chances are you’ve heard of Chuck Wepner. Nicknamed “The Bayonne Bleeder” for his uncanny ability to take a beating and keep fighting, Wepner actually got a shot at the title in 1975 when he fought Muhammad Ali, lasting fifteen rounds and even knocking Ali down once. That would have been the highlight of any fighter’s career, but legend has it Sylvester Stallone watched the fight and incorporated some of Wepner’s mythos into the Rocky Balboa character, although the happy-go-lucky, terminally irresponsible (as depicted here anyway) Wepner was a far cry from the almost saint-like Balboa.
A passion project for star Liev Schreiber, who in addition to starring also produced and enlisted his real-life wife, Naomi Watts, to play Wepner’s love interest, THE BLEEDER is the rare boxing movie that has the pugilism confined to the first act. The focus is really on what happened after Wepner stopped fighting. When we meet him, he’s a club fighter constantly stepping-out on his wife (an incredibly appealing Elisabeth Moss) but haunted by the specter of his favorite film, REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT, seeing a lot of himself in the broken-down mug played by Anthony Quinn in that film.
The first act is fairly standard, playing like a more comical take on ROCKY, with Wepner clearly no match for Ali (played by Schreiber’s ‘Ray Donovan’ co-star Pooch Hall) although he’s happy to go for the fame while his trainer (a funny Ron Perlman) is happy to take the checks. Up to here it’s a light, entertaining fight flick, but it gets even better once ROCKY gets made and Wepner finds himself a star.
Directed by Quebec director Phillipe Falardeau, for whom this is a much-better stateside vehicle than his earlier THE GOOD LIE, THE BLEEDER moves along at a wild, fast pace, mirroring Wepner’s increasingly chaotic life as he becomes a coke fiend with his best pal (Jim Gaffigan) and tries to make contact with Stallone, played by an uncanny Morgan Spector, who comes-off as entirely respectful of Wepner. If you’re a Sly fan you’ll get a kick out of the nods made to his movies, with Stallone and Wepner’s lives intersecting in uncanny ways throughout - all of which are actually true.
What’s really cool about THE BLEEDER is that it finally gives Schreiber the big-screen solo vehicle he deserves. What ‘Ray Donovan’ did for him on the small-screen, THE BLEEDER does for him in movies, with him able to totally carry the film on his shoulders playing a guy as far removed from the cooler-than-cool Donovan as you can get. He’s ably supported by Watts, who’s cast against type as a cynical barmaid Wepner’s sweet-on, with her making for a surprisingly earthy love interest - no surprise there as when is Watts ever not great?
Best of all, THE BLEEDER never overstays its welcome, telling the fast-paced biopic in just about ninety minutes, with Farlardeau cutting it lean and mean, with cool, 16mm-style grainy visuals and a soundtrack peppered with seventies classics. The aim here was clearly to make THE BLEEDER a fun, audience-friendly movie as opposed to Oscar-bait, and the result is refreshing. Count this as one of TIFF’s unexpected delights.