Movie Review: “Bleed for This”

Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Ciarán Hinds, Katey Sagal, Ted Levine
Ben Younger

Boxing movies tend to follow a very clear formula. If it’s an underdog story, it’s typically obvious what conflicts will arise and, whether won or not, there’s the catharsis that comes after the final boxing match. The newest entry in the subgenre, “Bleed for This,” checks a lot of boxes, but it isn’t without heart or a good, albeit familiar, story to tell. Writer/director Ben Younger’s film entertains with some immersive boxing scenes, a real sense of time and place, and some standout supporting performances.

The movie is based on the true story of Vinny “The Pazamanian Devil” Pazienza (Miles Teller), a boxer who didn’t believe in quitting and won three championships in three different weight classes. The story begins with the local Providence boxer having just gained some notoriety after winning two world title fights. At the beginning of the film, we see Vinny taking a beating from Roger Mayweather for the lightweight championship. His trainer Lou (Ted Levine) tells him he should throw in the towel and leave boxing forever. That’s something Vinny isn’t going to do, so Lou teams him up with fellow underdog Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), Mike Tyson’s former trainer. Rooney convinces Vinny to move up a weight class, and the gamble pays off in their first fight together. After a rousing victory and some hope, Vinny gets into a brutal car wreck, leaving him with a broken neck. The doctor tells him he’ll never box again, but Vinny doesn’t know how to do anything else. Boxing is his life, so with Kevin’s help and his family’s support, he trains hard enough to return to boxing in a year’s time to fight the biggest, and most dangerous, match of his career.

Vinny’s story is filled with all the highs and lows you’d expect from that plot synopsis, though Younger tells the somewhat conventional story well. Even though his script often goes in expected directions, it’s always sincere and feels honest. Vinny’s relationship with his father (played by the great Ciarán Hinds) and his trainer is the heart of “Bleed for This.” How much these three men care about each other, inside and outside of the ring, is authentic. The stakes are extremely high and personal, and in one scene, Younger and Hinds make the audience feel it, when Vinny’s father finally expresses his concerns for his son’s comeback. By doing what he feels is right, he knows he’s hurting his son, who he’s always proud of, but he can’t be in his corner and see him take a punch that he may not get up from. It’s a scene that completely wears it heart on its sleeve, which is a part of the film’s minor appeal.

Aaron Eckhart is fantastic as Kevin Rooney. With some physical adjustments (he’s balding with a belly), the actor completely transforms as a guy who’s also getting a second chance. “Bleed for This” isn’t always subtle – which isn’t a bad thing, especially in this case – but Eckhart underplays a character arc that’s as moving, although not as prominent, as Vinny’s. To see him comeback as well, albeit against far lesser odds, is a nice and authentic crowd-pleasing moment.

Younger and cinematographer Larkin Seiple (“Swiss Army Man”) shoot the boxing scenes with refreshing restraint. For starters, there’s no overbearing score, but Younger, Seiple and the sound department make the audience see and hear every punch Vinny takes. There’s nothing sensational about their approach to the boxing scenes, although there are some atmospheric flourishes, like the effective draining out of sound. There’s always a good sense of geography, and more importantly, a greater sense of what the fights mean to Vinny.

Some supporting characters are far too overlooked, most notably Vinny’s mother (Katey Segal) and sisters. They’re always present in the film supporting him, but you end up wanting more from them than simply watching as they cheer Vinny on from the stands. The good thing is that Vinny’s story is an inspiring one, and it’s told with enough passion and punch to make up for its often overt familiarity and a lack of character development beyond its three stars.