MOVIE REVIEW: BLEED FOR THIS
November 17, 2016
A big year for boxing movies with Jonathan Jakubowicz's "Hands of Stone" with Edgar Ramirez as Roberto Duran and now writer/director Ben Younger's BLEED FOR THIS with Miles Teller handily playing the charismatic Providence, Rhode Island boxer Vinny Pazienza aka the Pazmanian Devil aka Vinny Paz. (Ironically, during his career Paz twice defeated Duran.) With contrasting storytelling approaches, while Jakubowicz integrates key bouts of Duran's career into his story and showcases actual boxing as being integral to the character of Duran, with BLEED FOR THIS, Younger's focus is not on the actual boxing but on the man and the character (literally and figuratively) of Vinny Paz. An interesting approach to Vinny's story to be sure, but what Younger delivers is a film that epitomizes the Rocky Balboa mantra of "it's not about how hard you get hit, it's about how hard you get hit and keep on moving." And that's what Paz does, as Younger, together with an indelible uncanny performance by Miles Teller as Vinny, take us into the very heart of perhaps the greatest comeback story of all time.
Having just won the junior middleweight world title, Paz suffered a broken neck as the result of a head-on collision. Told by doctors he would never walk again, let alone fight, Paz insisted on the risky treatment of wearing a medical device called a Halo, a circular metal brace which is screwed into the skull at four key spots and then supported by four metal rods on a shoulder harness. While conventional treatment called for a surgical fusion of the vertebrae, the limitation of movement that it would allow if successful was unacceptable to Paz and thus, the Halo. Undeterred and unbeknownst to all but his trainer Kevin Rooney, against doctor's orders, Paz continued his workout regimen with the Halo in place. Ultimately returning to the boxing ring a mere thirteen months after the accident, Paz not only boxed, but defeated future WBC World Jr. Middleweight Champion Luis Santana via a 10-round decision.
Honing in on Vinny Pazienza, includes doing the same for his family. Close knit, Vinny and sister Doreen still live at home with their parents Angelo and Louise. Angelo not only manages Vinny, but has orchestrated every second of his life and career, and to such an extent so as to jeopardize Vinny's health. Like all good Italian boys, they know how to appreciate their mother's home-cooked Italian dinners, something which often causes Vinny to then have to resort to excessive measures to meet weigh-ins for bouts. A "system" that has been in place throughout Vinny's career with the blessing of his trainer Lou Duva, and tacitly Angelo, the day finally comes when Vinny is pushed to the brink and collapses landing in the hospital. While Louise frets and worries, Angelo just cares about getting Vinny his next fight while Duva decides Vinny is washed up and dumps him.
Enter Kevin Rooney. Rooney was also deemed a "washed-up", having been fired by Mike Tyson in 1988 after Tyson defeated Leon Spinks. A former Golden Gloves champion and professional boxer before turning trainer, after his firing by Tyson, Rooney couldn't get a job to save his life. Turning to alcohol, his home and professional life fell apart. But he still had a gym and still took on young boxers. Angelo Pazienza hired him to train Vinny. Bold in his approach to training Vinny, seeing Paz in better health at a higher "normal" weight, Rooney bumped him up two weight classes and led him to a championship title before tragedy struck.
Where others might have walked away when the accident happened, Rooney didn't. Now treated like a member of the Pazienza family, Rooney stood by Vinny and helped bring him back from the brink of death to more championships. But at the core is Vinny's grit and determination that led the charge for his recovery and comeback.
Focusing on the Pazienza family, Younger gives us inordinate sense of who Paz is - the family values, work ethics, stressors, etc. We don't need dialogue. We see it in family banter and the dynamic itself. Telling is the brutish nature of patriarch Angelo; but, that is part and parcel to East Coast Italian Catholic families of that era. Period. Interesting is the family dynamic which tempers Vinny in the contest of the film as in real life, it is well documented his ego was explosive, yet in BLEED FOR THIS we see him at age 27, still living at home, having nightly family dinners, etc. Very grounding. Most surprising with the script is that Younger actually scaled back from the truth while still delivering colorful and exciting characters in a world steeped in grit and realism. In real life, Vinny broke his neck and five days later started trying to bench press; Vinny only wore the Halo for three months as opposed to six in the film. Thinking that the truth didn't seem believable, Younger structures the film so it appears that more time passes as the body heals and Vinny moves towards a comeback.
A transitory role for Miles Teller, this is his first full adult mature role and we see his growth and mastery of his craft as an actor. As if tailor-made to play Vinny Pazienza, Teller has a cockiness and fun-loving nature to him, as well as intense determination, which allows him to easily slide into the emotional persona of Vinny. "Listening to interviews before I watched interviews because I just wanted to hear him talk; I didn't want to associate his voice with mannerisms", Teller's process worked as he nails not only the accent, but the tone of Vinny without distraction. More difficult is obviously the physicality and physical restriction of the role, at which Teller excels.
As Teller related, when he got the role he was at 188 lbs. with 19% body fat. Admitting that "a lot of how you look is genetic and I just didn't have that so I knew I was going to have to work extremely hard", Teller knew that "boxing training was going to be the toughest physical training that I had ever done by far. I think it's unparalleled in sports what these guys go through." His physical preparation became an eight month process during which he was also filming two other movies, but "once I actually got in LA and I had a fight camp of my own, it was four hours boxing and then two hours weights and then sometimes I'd even do another two hours of something; an 1 ½ hours of accent dialect, and then I was having to go to physical therapy throughout all this because I was hurting. It was by far the most prep that I've had to do for a character."
Be he in the ring or charming the ladies or playing Blackjack, Teller embraces Vinny's larger-than-life persona without it ever becoming a caricature. Spanning three weight classes over the course of the film, we see Teller seamlessly morph into each version of Vinny, but nothing prepares one for seeing Teller in full Halo head and shoulder gear, from the placement of the Halo and tightening of four giant metal screws into his head to their ultimate removal without the benefit of anesthesia or local. Teller is so intense, so believable, one is wincing in pain with him. (Teller actually had bumps on his skull from the screw placements).
Powerful emotional exchanges come from Teller and Ciaran Hinds as Angelo while the dynamic between Aaron Eckhart's Kevin Rooney and Teller is the heart and soul of the film. Hinds is a formidable force, be it in Vinny's corner or at the family dinner table, yelling as loudly as the rest of the family. However, matching Teller's conviction to his role is Aaron Eckhart with his portrayal of Kevin Rooney. Virtually unrecognizable, Eckhart boasts a pot-belly and balding head, while carving his own emotional notches as the relationship between Vinny and Rooney grows ever closer. Having worked together in Teller's first film, "Rabbit Hole", the comfort level between Eckhart and Teller is palpable, making the sanctity of the fighter-trainer relationship even more believable.
What Younger's story construct allows us to see is that the best thing that ever happened to Paz was for his father to get out of his corner and let Vinny "grow up" and come into his own. Ironic is that this happens with the Duran bout, which is when also see Louise actually go to the television set and watch Vinny box. A superstitious woman, Louise always refused to watch Vinny fight, instead praying at an alcove shrine off the living room for her son's safety. Very metaphoric and intense scenes. Notable is that as Louise, Katey Sagal is at her maternal best.
Not to be overlooked is an outstanding turn by Ted Levine as Vinny's original trainer, Lou Duva. Old-school, gruff, yet cagey and playing two sides of the fence, Levine's take on Duva sheds a light on the smarmier side of the sport.
Cinematographer Larkin Seiple's hand held camera-work goes far in creating an intimacy with the Pazienza family. Hand in hand with that is Kay Lee's production design with the family home, the gym - almost claustrophobic - which allows for Vinny's larger than life personality to almost explode at the seams of the cloistered world engineered by his parents. It also serves as a grounding mechanism. Adding another dimension of authenticity and realism is the filmic grain, capturing both the era and the essence of the sport. Close-ups work well with tacitly emphasizing things like the pain of screws being screwed into the head - or removed. Framing is always off kilter, nothing centered giving us a subconscious sense of a boxers bob-and-weave. Interesting look and feel that creates a constant energy.
Where the camera work fails, however, is in the ring and with training sequences. While it is understandable that the film's focus is the battle within Vinny's head and his struggle to comeback to the ring, one can't help but want to see the scope of the fight, not repeated close-ups of shoes and laces of one man or the other. Very disjointed feeling that doesn't give us the heartbeat of a fighter. And while Younger wasn't approaching BLEED FOR THIS for the boxing aspect of the film, it would have done wonders to bring in Bob Sale as fight choreographer, particularly given the amount of actual footage of Vinny and his fights that are used in the film. Inserting actual footage of the day, be it interviews or bouts, it would have helped to have Teller's physicality and fight style more in keeping with Pazienza. If you're not a fight fan or don't know Paz' history, you won't notice. But for those that know, you may find it distracting. Disconcerting is also the Pazienza-Duran bout and the boxer hired to play Duran. He looks nothing like Duran which causes and immediate disconnect from the film with questioning as to what we are seeing.
Editing is intriguing. Zac Stuart Pointer keeps it sharp, with a rough edge to it, right in line with the off-kilter framing. What really jumps out though is how Younger uses music and editing to stop and start scenes and sequences. Unsettling more often than not, but effective, as we get into Vinny's mindset with a music montage (perfect for music video DP Seiple) with music then abruptly ending with completely shifted visual angle and edit. Again, the idea of a boxer's bob-and-weave is subconsciously present. The film's construct is anything but traditional.
Melissa Vargas' costuming, along with make-up and 80's big-hair, is period perfect perfection. The overdone gold chains, bracelets, jackets and jewelry are spot on while bedazzled sweaters on Sagal are fabulous. Expounding and expanding on Kay Lee's production design is the set decoration by Kim Leoleis. Every tchotchke and piece of Catholic religious iconography imaginable is crammed into the Pazienza house giving a realism that is not only telling, but inviting. Even Angelo's 1979 Cadillac Coupe de Ville d' Elegance is not only period correct, but in keeping with Angelo's persona.
Perhaps one of the greatest gifts to the making of BLEED FOR THIS was that Younger shot the film on location in Providence, Rhode Island at some of the same locations where actual events happened, e.g., where Angelo finds out about Vinny's accident - that is the actual lodge where Angelo received the news, the hospital, fight arena, gyms and training locations, the same location where the vehicle collision occurred. As Teller notes, "[Providence] doesn't have a sports team. Vinny was their franchise. . .People would come up and tell you a Vinny Paz story. Everybody seemed to have a Vinny story." All of this is infused within every fiber of BLEED FOR THIS.
Colorful characters, gritty cinematic storytelling and a protagonist with a story already larger than life, as Miles Teller says, "Vinny knew who he was." Thanks to BLEED FOR THIS, so do we.
Written and Directed by Ben Younger
Cast: Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Ciaran Hinds, Katey Sagal, Ted Levine