In 1975, a club boxer from Bayonne, New Jersey got the opportunity of a lifetime. He was offered a chance to fight Muhammad Ali for a shot at the world’s Heavyweight title. The fight was considered a joke: a North Jersey palooka against the greatest boxer in the world in his prime. Yet the unthinkable happened. Chuck Wepner, AKA the Bayonne Bleeder, went almost 15 full rounds against the People’s Champion, even knocking him down in the ninth round. Despite losing by technical knockout with only 19 seconds left in the last round, Wepner became a folk hero. A few months later, Wepner got an intriguing offer from a relatively unknown bit-part actor who wanted to turn his story into a feature film. That actor was Sylvester Stallone and that movie was John G. Avildsen’s Rocky (1976). From then on, Wepner had a very different nickname: the Real Life Rocky.
Philippe Falardeau’s Chuck is a meat-and-potatoes biopic about Mr. Wepner, and for the most part it sticks to the basics of the genre. We see his rocky childhood, his early marriage to a beautiful woman way out of his league, the fight, his inevitable self-destruction in the face of fame, his hitting rock-bottom after being sent to prison after getting caught selling drugs, and his eventual comeback with a new wife and lease on life. As with many biopics, the film relies significantly on the weight of its performances. Liev Schreiber does admirable work as Wepner, bringing a stoic, almost understated working-class pathos to the role. He never attempts any big emotional scenes where he breaks down and sobs, which is perhaps for the best. Pooch Hall and Morgan Spector both disappear into their roles as Ali and Stallone—at no point do they feel like traditional Hollywood impersonators. And both Elisabeth Moss and Ron Perlman are reliably steady as they fill the shoes of such tired clichés as, respectively, the much-harried and cheated-on wife and the gravely, no-nonsense trainer.
Where Chuck manages to set itself partially apart from the host of sports biopics is in its fascination with the role media had in determining Wepner’s self-image. Before he became a somebody, Wepner’s favorite film was the elegiac boxing drama Requiem for a Heavyweight starring Anthony Quinn as Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, a washed-up boxer trying to put the pieces of his life back together. Having practically memorized the screenplay, he would recite bits of it to himself during times of stress and strife. But after Rocky, he fully embraced his newfound fame, deliberately modeling himself on his cinematic counterpart, going so far as to even adopt the character’s fedora. He becomes selfishly enamored with the film, seeing its success and subsequent Best Picture win at the Academy Awards as personal validation. One of the best scenes in the movie comes when Wepner shows up at the doorstep of his estranged brother the morning after the Oscars with a bottle of champagne to celebrate. When his brother explains that he didn’t watch the awards and can’t understand why he would care that much, Wepner takes it harder than any punch he ever received from Ali. It’s a fascinating bit of commentary on the cult of celebrity and the power we allow media to have on our lives, even if it destroys us in the process.