If it didn’t actually happen, I’m not sure I’d believe it. But there’s a reason that the return to boxing of Vinny Pazienza is known by some as the greatest comeback story in sports history, and the fact that it hasn’t been turned into a film yet is astonishing. Even more so, considering that the director of arguably the greatest boxing movie ever made, Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull), is among the executive producers of Bleed for This—a high compliment indeed and a much needed shot in the arm for long-absent writer-director Ben Younger (Boiler Room, Prime), who has turned the story of a chucklehead from Rhode Island into one of the more inspirational stories of the year.
The truth about Pazienza (known as Vinny Paz, played with a meathead integrity by Whiplash’s Miles Teller) is that even before his near-fatal car accident that left him barely able to move, let alone walk, he was near the end of his fairly impressive boxing career. He was fighting in the wrong weight class, but still managed to sweat off enough poundage before each weigh in. He was also ignoring his the regimen his trainers had him on and he was due to either end his career or undergo a major re-evaluation of his life choices. The crash forced the issue, and it become crucial to him that he made a recovery that wasn’t just about walking again, but about fighting better than he ever had. When given two options to recover from a broken neck, Vinny goes with the more painful of the two—a metal halo around his head with small screws pushed into his skull—because it meant he might have a shot at boxing again, even going against the opinion of his doctors. And every time he bumps his head against anything, we feel the pain in his head and neck as much as he does.
As the title suggest, a great deal of Bleed for This is about the bloody and painful lengths that Paz is willing to endure to make his return. He almost embraces the physical struggle as if it’s some type of penance for not taking the sport seriously enough when before he was injured. But at the same time he refuses pain meds and he pushes himself beyond his limits in a cramped gym set up in his parents’ basement while training with his new trainer Kevin Rooney (an almost unrecognizable Aaron Eckhart), who has a few demons of his own. Rooney had been Mike Tyson’s original trainer before Don King weaseled his way into Tyson’s life, and his life since has been a succession of blackout drunk nights.
Among the film’s highlights are the Pazienza family, consisting of father Angelo (Ciarán Hinds), who has his own ideas about Vinny’s future; mother Louise (Katey Sagal), who can’t even watch her son’s fights, so she sits in a nearby room and listens to the crowd reactions from the television; and sister Doreen (Amanda Clayton). Having such a colorful family near the center of this film might have uninspired minds comparing Bleed for This to The Fighter, which is also an excellent story of a New England boxer. But the recovery aspect of this film sets the two apart, and makes Bleed for This less about boxing and more about the boxer.
The look of Bleed for This is a bit on the grimy side, courtesy of cinematographer Larkin Seiple, and it enables a stark contrast between Paz’s home life and the glitzier arena of televised boxing matches. Much as he did in in Whiplash, Teller gets a lot of mileage out of training sequences, which are grueling and go a long way toward pulling audiences into Paz’s suffering, as well as his elation when he finally steps back into the ring for his first sparring bout (which he has trouble finding a partner for). The film’s big boxing comeback fight sequence is almost less interesting than the road Paz takes to getting there.
Bleed for This might actually be one of the best films about a guy not smart enough to know how dangerous it is for him to even think about coming back the way he does. And as I said, if this wasn’t based on a true story, I might have thought it was too outrageous to be a film. But with Teller and Eckhart as the engines driving this often grueling exercise, the movie pulls us through Paz’s personal hell with an almost first-person experience. The appeal of watching something like that might be minimal for some, but the payoff is seeing one of the true worthy surprises of the fall film season.