Although there are several film noirs that use boxing as a great dramatic device, boxing films are really hit and miss, especially when it comes to true stories. You have Raging Bull as the high watermark and then really mundane affairs like the recent Bleed for This or even Michael Mann’s Ali. The Bleeder falls into the middle ground: it’s better than your average boxing biopic, but it doesn’t quite smack that winning punch to be a Raging Bull. But then that’s a nearly impossible feat, just like the idea of Chuck Wepner beating Mohammad Ali in a boxing match.
The Bleeder is about Wepner (Liev Scheiber), who was the inspiration for Rocky Balboa even though Sylvester Stallone has downplayed his influence on the film (probably due to the lawsuit Webner won). Webner was a working-class guy from Jersey. He was a liquor salesman, but he was also was also a local boxing sensation. Eventually he worked his way up to becoming professional, and eventually got a fight with the Greatest. This trajectory provides the basis for The Bleeder.
However, as always with these guys, there is plenty of drama at home. His long-suffering wife Phyllis (Elizabeth Moss) has to deal with his boozing, infidelities and eventually a cocaine problem. Naturally he isn’t there for his daughter much either, and it’s a real rise and fall story, with overt influences from Boogie Nights and Goodfellas—but of course nowhere in the same league as those films.
It does get a boost from solid period detail, which is often something that really annoys me about biopics – normally it looks like fancy dress in modern day surroundings, but for this film the teams seem to have actually managed to make it look like the ’70s and ’80s for the most part. Schreiber gives a committed performance as Wepner, which isn’t surprising given that he was one of the writers on the film, so it was clearly a passion project. Elizabeth Moss is her typical great self and just reminds us how sad it is that she is trapped in an oppressive cult like Scientology. Ron Perlman plays Wepner’s manager/trainer and is his typical awesomeness, but he completely leaves the film about 50 minutes in, which is a great shame. Naomi Watts appears as Webner’s third and final wife, and she has natural chemistry with Schreiber since they were still an item at the time of filming.
The Bleeder is easily the best boxing film in some time. It’s been force fed to the movie-going public recently, but this one works because it doesn’t have some final-round success story. It won’t set the world on fire, but it packs a punch. It runs at a brisk 90-something minutes, and squuezes a lot of story into that time, including a fun part with Sylvester Stallone (played by Morgan Spector) about the making of Rocky II. The film is known as Chuck in the US, by the way.