Directed by Philippe Falardeau. US. 2016. R. 98 minutes. IFC Films. Digital.
Fri., June 2, 2017 thru Thu., June 15, 2017
“Liev Schreiber plays a real-life boxer, Chuck Wepner, famed for going fifteen rounds with Muhammad Ali, in 1975. Or, to be accurate, almost fifteen; the fight was stopped with less than twenty seconds to go, not that that made any difference to Wepner’s raucous supporters, especially in Bayonne, New Jersey. The movie shows him living there with his wife, Phyliss (Elisabeth Moss), and their daughter, Kimberly (Melo Ludwig), delivering liquor and trusting that his coach, Al Braverman (Ron Perlman), will get him the occasional bout.
If “Chuck” grows bloody, that’s because Wepner, who could take any punishment and seldom hit the canvas, was known for leaking gore; he was sometimes, to his chagrin, called the Bleeder, which was the original title of the film. Yet the only gruesome sight here is Ron Perlman eating a sandwich, and the action in the ring—including the match with Ali, whom Braverman refers to as Mahatma, and an early encounter with Terry Hinke, known as the Stormin’ Mormon—totals less than ten minutes. In truth, this isn’t a boxing movie at all. It’s a movie about the kinds of existence in which boxing, or the swagger of boxing movies, can feel like a big deal.
Look at Chuck, for instance, cuddling up to Phyliss, as they watch Anthony Quinn in “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962) and recite the lines from memory. That film began as a television drama, starring Jack Palance. (There was also a version, now lost, on British TV, with a pre-007 Sean Connery.) And whom does Quinn battle at the beginning of “Requiem”? Cassius Clay, as he then was, whose punches we see—or barely see—flying toward the lens. Later comes “Rocky,” which, in Wepner’s proud eyes, is based on his own defiant experience with Ali. When that film wins the Oscar for Best Picture, Wepner says, “We won.” He introduces himself to Stallone (played by Morgan Spector) in a restaurant, and even, with Stallone’s encouragement, auditions for a small role in “Rocky 2,” only to flame out, stoked on cocaine.
Movies coiled up in other movies have a habit of becoming either costive or cute, but somehow Falardeau avoids the traps. This is partly a matter of texture—Chuck wears a thick plaid coat that could double as a picnic blanket—and partly because the performances feel no less lived-in. The cast could knock the Guardians of the Galaxy on their backsides, any night of the week. Schreiber moves with bearish stolidity, even when boxing, and nothing is more poignantly delayed than Chuck’s realization that most of his wounds were self-inflicted. Moss is sharper on the uptake; watch her console Chuck on the eve of the Ali fight, drawing him to her breast but rolling her eyes to the heavens. She knows how this will end. As her successor, a redhead named Linda, Naomi Watts is in tough and unkiddable form, and her verdict on the Bleeder is at once harsh, precise, and touched with affectionate hope. “There’s more to you than meets the eye, Chuck Wepner,” she says, adding, “Not much, just enough.” (Anthony Lane, The New Yorker)