MOVIE REVIEW: Male vitality

116 min. | R

The obsessive energy that marked Miles Teller’s breakout performance in Whiplash is on full display here as he plays Vinny Pazienza, the real-life boxer from Rhode Island who won championships in three different weight classes.

Overall, Bleed for This is a conventional boxing saga about the improbable comeback of a fallen, flawed champ. You know the dramatic arc from dozens of sports movies in the past. Despite its narrative familiarity, the film is suffused with such contagious enthusiasm, distinctive performances, and local color that it stands out nevertheless.

A hometown hero in Providence, R.I., Vinny is a local mook who made good. Although he’s won national bouts, he acts more like an Italian Catholic guy from the neighborhood than a boxing legend. When we first encounter him, he’s running late to a weigh-in because he’s frantically trying to shed a few more pounds after an undisciplined night of partying with his girlfriend. After losing the fight, his trainer tells him to quit the sport, but Vinny just gets a new trainer, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), an alcoholic fired by Mike Tyson.

Then a horrific car crash breaks Vinny’s neck. The doctors say he can walk, but not box again, if he undergoes a spinal fusion. Instead, Vinny choses to have a metal halo screwed into his head for six months in the hope that he might box again—or be paralyzed for life. No ringside blood or punches are as brutal to watch as the screws being removed from Vinny’s skull while he refuses anesthetics. This questionable hero defies doctors’ orders and begins working out surreptitiously in the basement of his house while the halo is still in place.

The more Vinny perseveres, the more you question his single-minded purpose, as writer-director Ben Younger touches on the dubious obsessiveness within a competitive male sphere. But in the end, the movie brims with a restless vitality no matter what you think of Vinny, the trainers, the promoters, his colorful family members (Ciarán Hinds is brilliant as Vinny’s father), and the ceramic bric-a-brac that lines the shelves of the Pazienza household.