The aural palette of Bleed For This is drenched in screaming technicolor; the thud of leather forcefully applied to flesh, the cacophony of an entire working class Italian family at a kitchen table in a room smaller than the average bathroom, the splintering noise of a head on car collision. All of this underscores an environment rich in a sort of carnival atmosphere that perfectly captures the world of boxing in the Eighties and early Nineties.
Bleed For This tells the story of boxer Vinnie (Paz) Pazienza. In the early Nineties, as his career seemed to be flagging, he made an unprecedented jump of two weight classes to super middleweight and surprised everyone by winning the IBF championship. But shortly after that triumph he was involved in a catastrophic car wreck. Most of the film concerns itself with his attempt to return to boxing despite coming very close to being paralyzed.
What Bleed For This gets mostly right is the working-class roots and unrepentant hucksterism of boxing, especially in its depiction of the father-son team of boxing promoters, Lou and Dan Duva. They are a family that could give The Krays a run in the cold-blooded opportunist category. Completely unconcerned with the welfare of the boxers they promote, once they recognize the public’s renewed interest in Paz, the Duva’s happily jump at the chance to promote his first return bout—despite the close to 50/50 chance Paz may end up paralyzed.
So much about boxing, especially in the Eighties and Nineties, was the sports equivalent of a carny convention, and Bleed For This captures this perfectly. Uniformly the performances manage to walk the line between depicting almost cartoonish personalities while still imbuing them with a real humanity. Miles Teller has always struck me as a poor man’s Shia LaBeouf, but as Paz he is note-perfect. As an Italian working class man who becomes one of the premiere boxers in the world (but still lives with his parents), Teller manages to capture the paradox of a man with child-like qualities as well as the brutal arrogance necessary to thrive in the world of boxing. An almost unrecognizable Aaron Eckhart as Kevin Rooney (Mike Tyson’s former trainer) is perfect as an avatar of the kind of man that boxing often produces—broken alcoholics that also sometimes rise above their own baser instincts.
What Bleed For This doesn’t do particularly well is actual boxing. Unlike films like Southpaw or The Fighter, which had leads that could sell the idea of something resembling real boxing, this film feels more like Rocky and its heightened and often Hollywood portrayal of what happens in the ring. Teller just doesn’t manage to pull off the physicality necessary to make this feel real. Visually this film was competent and workmanlike, but it never soared.
Amazingly, none of this stops Bleed For This from working pretty well. It truly captures the odd world that boxing occupies, at least outside the ring—a world filled with a soundscape composed of equal parts tragedy and farce.