“Southpaw.” “Hands of Stone.” “Grudge Match.” Hollywood churns out so many mediocre boxing movies these days you might be fooled into thinking that they’re profitable. Only superhero fare is so consistently familiar and obvious, so quick to dilute the unique spirit of their heroes into a generic swirl of big victories that leave you feel like you’re standing in place.
It’s easy to understand why filmmakers are consistently drawn to them — what better way to test and celebrate a character’s spirit than to watch them take a thousand punches to the face? And yet — as a confidant tells Vincenzo Edward Pazienza at the start of Ben Younger’s disposable “Bleed for This” — “Will can only take you so far.” If you’ve ever seen a boxing movie before, you don’t need me to tell you that the true story of “The Pazmanian Devil” is going to prove that guy wrong. And if you’ve never seen a boxing movie before, please don’t start with this one.
Vinny Paz (as he prefers to be called) is a very different kind of boxer, and “Bleed for This” is at its best when it gawks at the things that make him unique. Paz hails from the suburbs of Providence, Rhode Island, where he was raised by an Italian family so broad and boisterous that they feel like they were cut out of “The Fighter” for not being subtle enough. Represented by his barrel-chested father (a typically wonderful Ciarán Hinds, who mines layers out of a one-dimensional role) and living in a room down the hall from his hyper-religious mother (Katey Sagal, lost in caricature), he’s a homegrown success in an increasingly corporate sport.
He’s also something of a paradox. On one hand, Paz packs a hell of a punch — on the other, he’s hits even harder as a punchline. Embodied by an absolutely ripped Miles Teller (who channels the same jocular determination that defined his performance in “Whiplash”), the kid is a no-nonsense teetotaler who lives to train and trains to fight, a guy who monastically approaches the sweet science like it’s a religion. He’s also a guy who shows up to a weigh-in wearing a cheetah-print thong, and spends the night before the biggest match of his career betting at a blackjack table and sprinkling his leftover chips onto the naked body of whatever groupie he’s pulled in for the evening.
The film begins in 1988 — as you can tell by the holy trinity of big hair, bad accents, and an endless sea of Tab cans — and Paz is past his prime and about to be put out to pasture. Enter Kevin Rooney, a personable trainer who was recently fired from Mike Tyson’s team on account of the fact that he’s a discreet alcoholic. Winsomely played by Aaron Eckhart (almost unrecognizable with a tire around his gut and a Windex shine where his hair used to be), Rooney knows what it’s like to be counted out. Paz, for his part, is about to learn that lesson the hard way — his neck is snapped in a high-speed car crash, and a rigid metal “halo” is drilled into the pugilist’s thick skull in order to refasten his brain to his body. Everyone tells him that he’ll never fight again, that he may not even walk. But he’s the Pazmanian Devil! He’s not going to let the basic facts of human anatomy get in his way! Besides, if boxers actually bothered to listen to their bodies, they’d never get a word in edgewise.
Cue montages. Cue ups. Cue downs. Cue extreme close-ups of Teller’s trembling, amusingly mustached upper lip as he struggles to lift his first weight. Cue people telling Paz no, and Paz telling them off. Cue scenes of our hero sanctifying himself through trials of masochistic pain (he considers sedatives a drug, so he’s wide awake when the doctor unscrews the halo from his head). Cue lines of concern like “You’re all in all the time!,” and another heaping pile of the uniquely American ideology that backbones so many of our sports movies: You can achieve your dreams, but only if you turn your life into a nightmare.
It takes a while for the numbing sameness of “Bleed for This” to sink in, as Younger (“Boiler Room,” “Prime”) displays his gift for leaning into a formulaic film with the enthusiasm of someone who’s never watched one before. He endows the early passages of this story with an intriguingly muted tone, muffling Paz’s ordeal so as to make it feel more intimate and less mythical. Younger brings a purely functional approach to the boxing scenes, which are so flat that even the climactic fight feels like a sparring match, but he deserves a ton of credit for finding a different way to shoot a car crash, for not placing the camera inside the vehicle and ambushing viewers with a sudden collision the way that almost every movie has since “Adaptation.” It sounds like a small detail, but that moment epitomizes the outsized impact of the film’s few genuine grace notes.
Still, every original drop of “Bleed for This” is lost in a sea of cliché and convention, and Younger seems totally incapable of separating the singular verve of his protagonist from the hackneyed arc of his defining ordeal. It’s maddening to see the spark of solidarity that welds Paz and Rooney into such close partners, only to then have the movie look in the other direction.
Ditto the relationship between the boxer and his increasingly conflicted dad, which is shoehorned into a story that would much rather stare at Paz as he cringes his way through the well-worn paces of the hero’s journey. Teller is appreciably committed to the character, but he’s only given one note to play, his full-bodied passion wasted on a movie that would rather win on points than go for the knockout.
As with so many of the movies from which it cribs, the moral of “Bleed for This” is that determination alone can rescue you from the depths of despair and deliver you to the finish line, that talent isn’t half as important as tenacity. That may be true in the movies, but it’s seldom the case in real life — it may be true in making a film, but it’s hardly ever the case in making them good.
“Bleed For This” premiered at the 2016 Telluride Film Festival. It opens in theaters on November 23.