How many times has the line “Give me another shot” been uttered in a boxing movie? What is it about these fiercely stubborn, bloodied and bruised fighters that means they just don’t know when to throw in the towel? Of all the human punching bags witnessed on film over the years, and of the many, many stories of triumph inside the ring in the battered face of adversity outside it, perhaps none are as deserving of cinematic treatment as Vinny Pazienza. With his first film since 2005 Meryl Streep-led rom-com Prime, Brooklyn director Ben Younger makes a complete change of direction, telling a remarkable life story with Bleed For This.
Vinny Paz, as he would come to be known, recovered from near paralysis after a car accident first to walk, then to train and then to fight again. “Giving up is easy.” But that’s never an option here. Miles Teller proved credentials by going toe-to-toe with J.K. Simmons in Whiplash and his performance as Providence’s favourite son further demonstrates his capability to lead a project from the front – even if he spends much of the film largely immobile. He does dogged, unerring determination very well and makes Younger’s film an engaging rollercoaster ride. Firmly in Vinny’s corner is Ciarán Hinds as his father, Angelo, and the smooth-talking, slick hair and dark shades on both men serve to prove that the apple has not fallen far from the Pazienza tree.
The coarse, grating accent of their blue collar neighbourhood, plenty of cursing and family squabbles does not disguise the warmth of a loving household. But it is the buddy element of Bleed For This, between Vinny and new coach Kevin Rooney (an excellent Aaron Eckhart), that draws us in and leads the film on a familiarly emotionally charged, resurgent trajectory. Each fallen on hard times after former glories and in need of that big title bout to restore faith and reputation, the wise-cracking, charismatic, dynamic duo make for a winning one-two combination. There are training montages to late 1980s hair rock, plenty of knock-off gold bling and some killer shell suits but there’s much more than sporting nostalgia here.
As with Rocky and others, Vinny Paz teaches us not to give up on dreams and not to listen when people say “can’t.” Sticking to your guns is the name of the game. After the car smash that leaves Vinny a total wreck, Younger chooses to show in some detail the initial moments of the revolutionary Halo surgery: bolts screwed into this skull and a large supportive brace fitted in order to support his spine. It’s excruciating but goes some way to showing just what an extraordinary feat he achieved to return to the biggest stage of all under the lights in Las Vegas. Bleed For This builds to ‘The Duel in the Desert’ and you’ll be cheering for Vinny with every blow landed and wince at every punch received. It’s an exciting climax of an enjoyable, stirring sports movie.