The boxing movie is a paradox. Here's a sport that's never been less relevant. Its glory days are a half century in the rearview. Muhammad Ali is a beloved shadow. George Foreman's a walking infomercial. Mike Tyson makes Hangover movies and a fool of himself on Broadway. Nobody cares about boxing anymore, and nobody cares less than Hollywood's prime demographic — the 18- to 24-year-olds. They don't even play boxing video games anymore.
So how is it that boxing movies arrive with the regularity of dystopian YA franchises? Some critics have speculated that their appeal lies in their ability to balance prestige with populism. Those commentators may be on to something. After all, no great fighter has ever come from the 1 percent.
Everyone loves to see a gutsy underdog defy the odds, and they probably always will. Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa, Russell Crowe's Jimmy Braddock, Mark Wahlberg's Micky Ward. To that card, add Miles Teller's Vinny Paz.
Written and directed by Ben Younger (Boiler Room), this is the fact-based story of Vinny Pazienza, a working-class Rhode Island fighter who defied the odds more times in more ways than any other character ever to lace up on the big screen.
By the way, is Teller not the last actor you'd expect to pull off the role of a cocky, sex-crazed Italian American pugilist? When the filmmaker approached him, Whiplash hadn't even been released, so the casting qualifies as borderline visionary. And, just as Younger knew he would be, Teller is a knockout. He nails the hometown hero's accent, fighting style and goofball charm.
Early on, in a sequence set in the late 1980s, Paz (he had his name legally changed) loses his lightweight title by gambling in a Vegas casino the night before a match. His father — played by the great Belfast-born Ciarán Hinds — sends him to work with legendary trainer Kevin Rooney, one of the ringmasters responsible for Tyson's rise.
For the fun of it, check your watch the first time Rooney walks on screen. Then see how much time passed before you recognized Aaron Eckhart in the role. Talk about a transmogrification. Forget the receding hairline and paunch; the actor somehow made himself shorter!
The boxer and trainer's relationship is the film's heart and soul. First Rooney intuits that Paz shouldn't lose weight, but rather use it and move up a class. Over protests from his large, loud Catholic family, Paz stuns everyone by taking the junior middleweight title from Gilbert Delé. Then, out of nowhere, fate deals the "pride of Providence" a blow that nobody gives him a chance of getting up from. En route to a casino in 1991, Paz suffers a head-on collision and his neck is fractured. Doctors don't expect him to walk again.
If what happened next weren't in the record books, no studio would have touched this tale. But it is. And it's the comeback story to end all comeback stories.
Vinny is just arrogant enough to figure medical science doesn't apply to him. With a metal halo brace bolted into his skull, he secretly resumes training, eventually enlisting Rooney. Their covert regimen is a touching blast to behold. Teller convincingly conveys the agony and unbridled joy in every baby step. When, incredibly, Paz not only returns to the ring 13 months after the accident but also takes a new title in a higher weight class, how can you not be in his corner?
The answer: You can't. Bleed for This may have taken a beating at the box office over the weekend, but don't count it out. A movie this raw and real will find its following. It's that rarest of beasts — a Cinderella story that's the farthest thing possible from a fairy tale.