Philippe Falardeau’s new film, The Bleeder, is a biopic of the real-life inspiration for Rocky Balboa, heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner. While many of the beats will seem familiar to viewers of sports biopics, The Bleeder has redeeming qualities that make it worth a look. Chief among these are an authentic period feel, strong performances by the leads, and a compelling redemption story.
The writers (Jeff Feurzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Cristofer, Liev Schreiber) quickly provide details of Wepner’s youth and current situation in Bayonne, N.J. Wepner (Liev Schreiber) lives with wife Phyllis (Elisabeth Moss) and their children. Phyllis works for the post office; Wepner has a day job selling liquor to supplement his boxing income.
As a boxer, he appears to be more dogged than gifted. His nickname, “Bleeder”, comes from his tendency to hemorrhage at the lightest tap. Even so, a major stroke of luck comes his way when promoter Don King selects Wepner to challenge Mohammad Ali for the heavyweight title.
Everyone is surprised by Wepner’s tenacity in the ring, especially since he knocks Ali down at one point. Ali wins the match, but Wepner takes pride in having lasted nearly full fifteen rounds.
Aspiring actor Sylvester Stallone is inspired by the fight and uses details from it in writing his script for Rocky. Wepner does not receive compensation. He is not even aware of the similarity between himself and Rocky until he watches Stallone’s film in theaters.
Instead of being angry, Wepner is thrilled by the reflected glory. He begins calling Rocky “my movie”, using it as a path to parties, drugs, and women. It is not long before he and Phyllis split up, and Wepner shows signs of being in over his head. The Bleeder does not excuse Wepner for bad results of bad behavior. It also provides a moving account of his battle to regain control over his life.
Liev Schreiber relies a little too much on his Joisey accent for effect in the early going, but quickly relaxes into the role. His Wepner is a big, tough guy who lacks a killer instinct. Maybe that is why he does not seem to be able to capitalize on opportunities.
Elisabeth Moss does a wonderful job as Phyllis, who could almost be a New Jersey relative of Peggy Olson (Moss’ character on the television series Mad Men). She and Schreiber are quite believable as a long-married couple with all the established daily routines. Moss has a great speech with one of Wepner’s girlfriends, where she says, ‘You don’t even have to be pretty-and you’re not.” The line is delivered with equal parts contempt and pain.
Naomi Watts (the real-life Mrs. Schreiber) plays Linda, whom Wepner marries after divorcing Phyllis. Watts does her best with the role, but she is a little too alert to be believable as someone who would work at the rundown bar Wepner frequents.
Falardeau and his crew are to be commended for giving The Bleeder such an accurate feel for the middle 1970s. Corey Allen Jackson (music), Gonzalo Cordoba (art direction), and Vicki Farrell (costumes) all deserve mention here. Nicolas Bolduc (War Witch) does outstanding camera work.
The Bleeder may not be another Rocky, but it goes the distance in its plainspoken way.
Theme: Boxer’s Lives
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