Ben Younger’s Bleed For This is the story of Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller), a boxer who came back from a broken neck and became Middleweight champion. Pazienza performs this feat with the help of trainer Kevin Rooney (a hammy yet endearing Aaron Eckhart) and his father, Angelo (Ciarán Hinds). The short version of this review is that the film is not good. It follows the cliche ridden formula of a fight movie released around Oscar season and fails to imbue the story with the required emotional resonance that would justify leaning so heavily on formula. In addition to that, it has a number of characters that could be excised from the script without much change to the overall film (the film wastes Katey Sagal on a role that mainly consists of her praying in the kitchen). What I will be focusing on for the majority of the review is what I feel tips the film from generic and inoffensive to outright bad. Namely, the Bleed For This actually vindicates most of Vinny’s flaws rather than have him grow or change in any meaningful way.
When we first meet Vinny Pazienza he has three discernable character flaws. Firstly, he cuts corners and puts things off. The scene that introduces Vinny to the audience does so while Vinny is riding a stationary bike while covered in plastic wrap (to induce sweating). This peculiar workout session is happening when Vinny is supposed to be at a weigh in for his next fight. Everyone is waiting on him and he’s not showing up. The point being made here is clear: Vinny’s tendency to cut corners is a detriment to his boxing. Secondly, Vinny is a glutton for punishment. In the first boxing match of the film, which Vinny loses, we see him take many punches and then proudly gloat that he could take them all day. Lastly, Vinny is a gambler. Vinny plays blackjack recklessly and wins big early in the film. He sleeps with a woman later that night and covers her in his winnings as a celebration. Vinny does this instead of resting up for his fight and this is a fight he goes on to lose.
Of Vinny’s three main flaws, the gambling is handled most peculiarly by the film. For the reason provided above, the viewer is invited to see Vinny’s gambling as a flaw. However, when Vinny is presented the opportunity to jump right ahead to a title fight, against the advice of his trainer, he does so immediately. In response to Vinny jumping ahead Rooney explains to Vinny that he “needs to learn the difference between a calculated risk and a gamble”. However, Vinny wins the fight and suffers no repercussions due to his risk disposed behavior. This vindication of Vinny’s gambling occurs again, when Vinny is told that he can have either a halo that puts him at incredible risk of further injury or a surgery that will guarantee his ability to walk again. Vinny chooses the riskier option, against the explicit advice of his doctor and this pays off for him in the long run. The film reveres Vinny’s gambling and risk taking in a way that I think is thematically peculiar. Shouldn’t it be the case that this behaviour is punished rather than revered? If not, why present it as a flaw in the first place? The filmmakers could have made a movie about embracing your flaws and turning them into strengths but that idea doesn’t seem to be anywhere in the text itself. Vinny just responds to his accident the same way that he responds to everything and it works out for him. It is a curious decision that just feels somewhat strange and prevents the movie from making a coherent dramatic statement.
Somewhat less problematically, Vinny’s gluttony for punishment also ends up serving him well. In the film, it is presented as the reason that he is able to endure the pain that comes with training with his fractured neck. While promoting a “play through the pain attitude” isn’t a problem for a sports film it is still odd that multiple times throughout the movie this attitude is presented as a character flaw that needs to be overcome. It causes Vinny to overexert himself in training (which requires the denouncement of Vinny’s trainer) and it also seems to explain why Vinny loses his first fight. There is a foreboding line during the weigh in scene in which Vinny says that he is willing to die in the ring and his future opponent responds by saying that “[Vinny] is thinking about dying instead of boxing, which should tell you all you need to know”. Since Vinny loses the fight, it is natural to read the foreboding line as conveying to the audience that Vinny needs to become more level headed and take less punishment. Once again, the exact opposite turns out to be true.
The film handles Vinny’s corner cutting in a much more sensible way. Rooney frequently cautions Vinny against cutting corners and this advice is presented as helping Vinny learn to train properly with his injury and it makes him a better boxer. This is basic character development stuff but, credit where credit is due, the film does a decent job of it. This character also makes problems for “turning flaws into strengths” interpretation since it is a clear cut case of Vinny having to change one of his flaws outright in order to become a better fighter.
As I said at the beginning of the review, the reason that the film’s approach to Vinny as a character is so damning (and why I am spending so much time on it) is that there isn’t a whole lot else going on in the movie that is interesting. Admittedly, Miles Teller once again proves he is a genuine talent in the lead role. He nails Vinny’s pre and post injury physicality with equal precision. Honestly, Vinny is kind of an ass in the film and the fact that we like him even a little bit is a testament to Teller’s skill. The second of the film’s two main characters is the already mentioned Kevin Rooney and his character is kind of a great, big mess. We are first introduced to him as a barely functioning alcoholic but then he immediately flips to wise, concerned trainer despite the film completely failing to dramatize this transition. Why does Vinnie go from someone that Rooney barely seems to be able to tolerate to someone he looks out for like family? The film does nothing to answer this question, and others, as Rooney is sorely lacking in development throughout the proceedings. Eckhart brings a certain charm to the role, though sometimes he can feel like he is playing two different characters (Rooney the father/mentor and Rooney the alcoholic sad sack) from scene to scene. These are the two characters who have any substantial attention paid to them and they are both noticeable misfires.
Overall, Ben Younger has churned out an incredibly generic boxing movie with a couple of glaring flaws. It’ll get the job done if you’re already sick to death of The Fighter and Creed but there is so little going on here that hasn’t been done (and done better) many times at this point. It’s a shame because all of the ingredients for a good movie are here. If the filmmakers were able to reconcile their reverence for Vinny’s detrimental flaws with the fact they are textually recognized as flaws they might have been able to make a film that says anything beyond “Winning a title fight after you break your neck is really, really awesome”.