As a fighter, Vinny Pazienza was no stranger to emergency rooms. The injury that almost ended his career didn’t happen in the ring, however, but as the result of a car accident. After sustaining a broken neck, doctors told him he might not walk and definitely would never fight again. Pazienza refused to give up and the result is the greatest comeback story in boxing history.
Bleed for This also represents a comeback for talented writer/director, Ben Younger. Once praised for the 2000 crime drama Boiler Room, Younger hasn’t made a film since 2005’s romantic comedy, Prime. With an intense performance by Miles Teller as Pazienza, Bleed for This enters the pantheon of great fight films. One of the best is, of course, Raging Bull, whose director, Martin Scorsese, is Younger’s executive producer.
In 1988, a day before a title match in Las Vegas, Vinny is in his hotel room, bound up in plastic wrap, pedaling furiously on a stationary bike, hoping to meet his weight requirement of 140 pounds. He shows up late for the weigh-in wearing nothing but a leopard print jock strap, and just makes the cut. Rather than rest, he stays up all night playing blackjack. It’s no surprise that he’s easily defeated.
Aaron Eckhart and Miles Teller
The boxing world quickly dumps losers and, with a string of three losses, Vinny struggles to find another match. His new trainer, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), comes with baggage of his own; he was fired as Mike Tyson’s trainer after being arrested for a DUI. Eckhart, in a memorable supporting role, is virtually unrecognizable as the bald, pot-bellied trainer. Rooney hasn’t stopped drinking, but he still knows what it takes to win. Rather than battle to keep off the pounds, Rooney suggests that Vinny box at his more natural weight of 154, which means moving up two categories.
The strategy works and Vinny is once again winning and scheduled for a title match in Las Vegas. Fate, however, takes a cruel turn. A horrific head on collision leaves Vinny with a serious spinal injury. When Vinny wakes up surrounded by his concerned Italian family, he tries to make light of his situation. Reality begins to sink in and, vowing to fight again, he agrees to wear a medal device called a halo that is held in place with four screws actually drilled into the skull. Younger doesn’t spare us the sight of watching that gruesome operation.
Vinny spends his days lying alone in a hospital bed in his parents’ living room. (A girlfriend leaves in a huff after getting her hair caught in his medal device.) While his parents supported his boxing – his father Angelo (Ciarán Hinds), was literally in his corner for every fight – they don’t want him back in the ring. Vinny can’t see himself doing anything else and soon, joined by Rooney, is in the basement working out.
After three months, the halo is removed. This scene is more difficult to watch than the first since Vinny refuses anesthesia and screams with each screw that is removed. Back in the gym, he can’t find a sparing partner. No fighter wants to be the one to inflict what could be a killer blow. Once Vinny shows that he’s in shape, people begin to fall into line, including fight promoters Lou and Dan Duva (Ted Levine and Jordan Gelber) who know a good publicity “hook” when they see one. The fight they line up is a big one, with more than a million dollars for the winner.
Ciarán Hinds, Miles Teller, and Aaron Eckhart
There’s a buildup to that final fight scene and it doesn’t disappoint. Younger has said that the film was shot in three weeks on a shoestring budget, but it has the feel of a much larger film, thanks to all that expertly shot action in the ring. We hear and feel every blow that’s landed.
Vinny’s father attends the match and, despite saying he couldn’t be in his usual corner, eventually ends up in that spot cheering on his son. Meanwhile, the other relatives watch from home. Vinny’s mother, Louise (Katey Sagal), avoids the television and prays in an alcove before an altar crowded with statues of saints and burning candles. Vinny’s sister, Doreen (Amanda Clayton), watches with assorted relatives, bowls of popcorn on their laps. (All three actors playing members of the Pazienza family offer some comic relief with their zaniness without going over the top. Sagal is particularly effective as the ever-protective mother.) Kudos to set decorator Kim Leoleis for creating the type of overstuffed home environment that will resonate with many baby boomers, especially the Italian-American ones.
The film’s success rests with Teller, and he builds on his breakout performance as a drummer in Whiplash. As Vinny, he holds nothing back, whether inside or outside the ring. While the fight scenes are, at times, painful to watch, the scenes where he struggles with the halo, bumping against a car door, for example, may have you grabbing your own head.
Stay for the credits to see photos and interviews of Vinny Pazienza himself.
Bleed for This opens nationwide November 18, 2016.
Photos by Seacia Pavao courtesy of Open Road Films