Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller) is a boxer on his way out. After losing a title fight his representation, in lieu of dropping him outright, strands him with an alcoholic trainer (Aaron Eckhart) who is also on the way out.
This, this 45 minutes of the film, is not the narrative crux of the film, though. In a way, it is a thematic introduction, but it is a lengthy one. Risking everything, Pazienza “The Pazmanian Devil” bulks up two weight classes and finds himself on the verge of a comeback. Then he breaks his neck in a head-on car crash.
Surprisingly, the lengthy time spent establishing Vinny’s character is wasted on petty talk of his weight class. We do not feel connected with Vinny because he is presented as a burned-out star living and persevering simply to continue being erratic and raucous.
Therefore, when we are presented with his injurious downfall, unfolding in a glorious shot that downplays the immediate significance of the act, we do not adequately care enough to root for his rebirth.
The lack of energy in Bleed For This is equivalent to Teller’s repeated way of showing the turmoil of his position: listlessly eating food at the dinner table—a setting we needlessly return to time and time again throughout the film. Teller lacks energy, the narrative lacks energy, and the film as a whole suffers from it. At least Eckhart’s performance brings energy to the somewhat dorky coach character, but the man’s trajectory as a reluctant mentor figure is woefully archetypal.
Part of the reason for this lack of energy may come in the form of poor storytelling. Motifs are set up to motivate the themes, but they are put in with no development. Vinny’s mother (Katey Sagal) hiding away nervously in a cramped room during Vinny’s fights is meant to illustrate a worry for her son, but the character is only really seen in this setting. We never hear her worries or see them expressed toward Vinny. In the room, she is both literally and thematically isolated from the story, so much so that it stilts what would otherwise be a wonderful performance from Sagal.
Boxing films live and die by the fight. There is the recent Rocky reborn electricity of Creed‘s sequences. There is the visceral stylization of the less successful Southpaw. Then there is the messiness of Bleed For This. Excessive cutaways take us out of the ring, both physically and emotionally. Tempo absent, tension fizzles. The stakes are simply eliminated.
Bleed For This is a throwaway boxing movie if there’s ever been one. Conventional characters developed through mere quirks—Vin’s gambling and his coach’s drinking—are cardboard. The plot presents a series of points that move with the speed of Vinny exiting a vehicle. The film takes its source material at face value, seemingly choosing not to craft the story into a compelling narrative when the struggle of the protagonist is inherently compelling.
Bleed For This: C
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)