As Rocky Balboa once said, “It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” Boxer Vinny Pazienza certainly embodied that decree both inside and outside of the ring. Bleed For This, based on the real life story of “the Pazmanian Devil”, manages to mostly step out of the shadows of its cinematic boxing predecessors. The majority of its shortcomings occur during the first act, during which the story follows the comeback biopic template to a fault. Even amidst the formulaic structuring, the energetic direction and lead performance by Miles Teller refuse to allow a technical knockout.
Pazienza’s miraculous comeback began even before his nearly fatal car accident. After losing his third fight in a row, his own manager suggests that it may be time to hang up the gloves. Instead, Pazienza convinces Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart) to enter his corner as a trainer. Like Pazienza, Rooney is also someone who enjoys defying conventional wisdom. The tandem manages to exactly that by simultaneously ending his three fight slum and capturing a championship belt. The “hero’s journey” is not a single pathway in Bleed For This. Instead, it’s an obstacle course of adversity, which helps to separate it from its comeback story brethren.
As with essentially every film that is based on a true story, the facts are sometimes sacrificed for the sake of cinematic storytelling. Some elements are exaggerated to make the story even larger than it already is. One of these is Pazienza’s peculiar family, who are depicted in a David O’Russell-esque fashion. From his parents (Katey Segal and Ciaran Hinds respectively) to his sister (Amanda Clayton), Pazienza’s family would feel right at home amongst the relatives of Mickey Ward. To the film’s credit, director Ben Younger’s style is equally erratic when spending time with the Pazienza’s. The quick movements combined with the crazy fashion and peculiar furniture makes for a disorienting but fascinating experience. Luckily, some of these everyday life moments lead to some of the most impactful scenes of the film.
Thanks in large to Teller’s performance, the film succeeds at making Pazienza a fully fleshed out protagonist. Teller’s performance is one that extends far beyond the physical transformations, which is still an impressive feat. Pazienza is a larger-than-life figure and Teller portrays him initially as a likeable but cocky loudmouth. Nevertheless, he’s an emblem of hard work that frequently stems from obsession. Nowhere is this more evident than watching Pazienza cover himself in Seran Wrap to help him lose a few extra pounds. Following his accident, his portrayal becomes more internalized without divulging into schmaltz. The accident is a forceful injection of humility and his dedication to recovery is well handled. His battle becomes psychological even stretching past the physical markings such as cuts and scars. Teller utilizes the same energy he brought to his role in Whiplash, a fine return to form after some less than stellar work (Fantastic Four anyone?).
Much like he did in Boiler Room, Younger’s directing style is both eclectic and aggressive. While the boxing scenes aren’t exactly revolutionary from a composition standpoint, the fundamentals of the boxing itself are as accurate as any film out there. It’s a boxing movie that understands the meticulous nature of the sport. Younger also manages to channel the central character’s traits into his vision. Scenes of Pazienza entering and exiting casinos are erratic but his style changes following the accident. The idea that one singular punch could paralyze Pazienza adds a tremendous amount of suspense during the final fight. Speaking of which, the surgical scenes are downright grisly. Despite watching Pazienza take punch after punch in the ring, the removal of his protective halo without anesthesia is the most difficult moment to watch in the movie.
At the center of Bleed For This is a story about moving beyond limitations and doing the impossible. Despite what the title suggests, Pazienza was by no means a masochist. Despite the indescribable pain, he went through hell in more ways than one. Despite some inaccuracies such as the Duran fights (ironic since Hands of Stone depicted his life without mentioning Pazienza), Bleed For This is more than a typical sports biopic. The comparisons will certainly be made to The Fighter, especially since Providence is not too far from Boston. The similarities are definitely evident but the family dynamic was at the forefront of David O’Russell’s film. Bleed For This is both cinematic and interesting without losing sight of the man from Rhode Island who wore the gloves.