For its first 45 minutes, Bleed For This is a typical boxing movie: Talented fighter Vinny Pazienza (a game Miles Teller) has talent and determination, but a lot to learn. He teams with down-on-his-luck trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), works hard, and finds success.
What comes next, however, is anything but typical: Vinny breaks his neck in a horrific car accident. He opts to wear a “halo” on his upper torso that literally screws into his head. The idea is for the neck to heal itself as it’s held in place for six months. Everyone tells him he’ll never fight again. Heck, he’ll be lucky just to walk again.
This middle portion is where the film is at its best, specifically because it strays from boxing movie basics and allows Teller and Eckhart to put their acting skills to the test (both are superb). Unsurprisingly, Vinny is the only one who believes he’ll get back in the ring. In a telling moment, he reveals to Kevin that what scares him the most is giving up, in large part because it would be so easy to do. This is where his willpower comes into play — all he knows is boxing, and he has no desire to do anything else. You can’t help but root for a guy who has a clear goal and goes after it with all he’s got.
Perhaps you remember the true events from the late ’80s/early ’90s on which the story is based, some of which have been liberally condensed to tell a more dramatic story in under two hours. No shame in that. Vinny’s mental strength is an inspiration, and Teller’s performance effectively gets us to like Vinny in spite of his vices (gambling, women). Too bad writer/director Ben Younger’s third act goes straight back to being predictable, which in part is inevitable, because it’s based on a true story, and in part is unforgiveable for being handled in such a trite way. Genre movies are successful because they bring new takes to old conventions; aside from the injury, Bleed For This doesn’t bring anything new to the table.
It also falls short in terms of standard boxing movie expectations. There are no great training montages. The music, both the songs and original score, are not dynamic. The fight choreography — meaning how it was shot, not the actual fighting itself — is as boring as it gets. There’s trash talk at a press conference, but nothing memorable. Vinny’s adversity may lead to a heck of a personal triumph, but it doesn’t make for a great boxing movie.
This is as moderate a film recommendation as can be given, for a movie that in its entirety is profoundly average. And yet I walked away smiling rather than annoyed, mostly because I liked the characters, who were enough to overcome weak storytelling.