Miles Teller and Ciarán Hinds in Bleed for This (2016)

Miles Teller Is a Knockout in Boxing Tale, ‘Bleed for This’

Director Ben Younger delivers an entertaining reminder that defeat is only a temporary condition.

Bleed for This is a film about what drives men; big, loud, sweaty men. This true story about the rise, fall, and rise again of American boxer Vinny “Paz” Pazienza succeeds through the sheer determination of its young star, Miles Teller. Director Ben Younger indulges the usual boxing clichés while still keeping a gritty, authentic flavor.

This is a lean, mean affair that never sugarcoats its flawed hero. Paz’s indomitable spirit and determination are an inspiration, even in the service of mindless gladiatorial combat.

In the late ’80s, Vinny Pazienza’s (Teller) boxing career teeters on the brink of failure. He dehydrates himself to the point of collapse just to make weight for a title bout, only to gamble all night before the fight. His dad Angelo (Ciarán Hinds) indulges his every whim, acting as a buffer between the impulsive Paz and his ruthless promoter, Lou Duva (Ted Levine). When Paz loses his title bout against Roger Mayweather in 1988, Duva can’t wait to unload the “tough but talentless” tomato can (in the boxing idiom) from his roster of fighters.

Enter Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart).

Rooney famously trained a young Mike Tyson as he rose through the boxing ranks, only to be cast aside when his drinking got out of control. Now, he begs for the occasional chance to train has-beens and never-weres. Duva tries to put both men out of his misery by teaming the burnout Rooney with the meathead Paz. Two things that Duva never counted on, though: Rooney still has the goods as a trainer, and Paz doesn’t know how (or when) to quit.

Teller is a runaway train in the film’s first act, which follows the irrepressible Paz from hotel beds to blackjack tables to boxing rings (not necessarily in that order). He smacks himself in the head as he buzzes around the ring like an irritating fly. Paz is the kind of guy who can’t tell the difference between a risk and a gamble. He’s a cartoon character sketched from blood and bravado. Teller’s natural screen presence connects effortlessly with Paz’s manic energy, creating a character that’s equal parts lovable and infuriating.

Writer-director Ben Younger (Boiler Room, Prime) has a good feel for the language of male aggression. He understands that men test each other with a tricky mix of playful camaraderie and passive-aggressive posturing. When Rooney shows up drunk to his first morning training session with Paz (or “hungover”, as Rooney contends), the two men have a sparring match that has nothing to do with boxing. They come to an understanding, like men often do, by bullying their way to respectability. It’s in these moments — in the hands of a good writer and gifted actor — that Bleed for This distinguishes itself from the litany of boxing movies.

We’ve seen inspirational stories about athletes overcoming insurmountable odds before, of course. The difference is that Pazienza’s story doesn’t involve a busted knee or substance abuse, but a broken neck. After a car accident leaves a shredded vertebra dangerously close to his spinal cord, Paz must choose between fusing the vertebrae (and ending his boxing career) or wearing a sadistic metal Halo device for six months so that his bones can heal on their own. One bump and it’s goodbye, Mr. Spinal Cord.

Paz certainly isn’t the first man to confuse bravery with stupidity, and Younger makes no effort to sidestep his questionable (i.e., idiotic) decision to continue training with a broken neck. Likewise, he never judges his characters, either. He films each grueling weightlifting session in the basement like a grimy home movie. When Paz strains to bench press the unweighted bar, you feel the immediacy of his hopelessness. Every tortured stride toward the boxing ring makes us root for Paz just a little bit more, even against our better judgement. Again, Paz bullies his way to respectability.

Bleed for This isn’t perfect, of course. We don’t get much character development beyond the confines of Paz’s rehabilitation. Rooney is clearly battling some demons, and Paz isn’t exactly a model of mental health, either. They function perfectly fine as two-dimensional archetypes, but this also deprives the story an extra layer of emotional involvement. We feel inspired because Younger’s script hits all the right notes, but it’s too shallow to be anything more than a fleeting feel-gooder.

It would also be nice if the female characters were something more than caricatures. You’ve got the long-suffering mother (Katey Sagal) who can’t bear to watch her boy fighting on the TV; the beautiful bimbo with a heart of gold (Tina Casciani) who sticks by Paz’s side; the wisecracking sister (Amanda Clayton) who bullies her henpecked husband; and lots of half-naked Ring Girls. Bleed for This may be set in a man’s world, but it didn’t have to be so damn obvious about it.

Still, Teller is the revelation here, crushing every scene as the emotional and physical epicenter of this story. He is, perhaps, the most interesting young actor working in Hollywood today. Even when he’s ‘slumming it’ in the terrible Divergent franchise, Teller is the one actor you’re watching on the screen (if you haven’t fallen asleep). Here, he takes his naturally brazen persona and uses it to make Paz more endearing.

Eckhart also shines as the wobbly but brilliant sensei. Sporting a bald head and fake belly, Eckhart loses himself completely in the unglamorous role. He also delivers some of the film’s funniest lines, underscoring what a brilliant comic actor he can be with the right material.

While it’s unlikely that Bleed for This will supplant Rocky in the minds of filmgoers, it’s an entertaining reminder that defeat is only a temporary condition. The boxing action is effective, if unspectacular, and it’s got one hell of a star turn from Teller. Mostly, it will make you feel cocky and invincible for the rest of the evening, and that’s a pretty rare commodity these days.

RATING 7 / 10