The Bleeder is yet another one of those inspiring tales about a boxer, but it comes with a novel twist in that it’s about the first boxer who inspired one of those inspirational pictures. Quebec filmmaker Philippe Falardeau’s (Monsieur Lazhar) film chronicles the life of Chuck Wepner, a Jersey boxing icon in the 70s who was best known for his lovable loser status until he improbably ended up fighting Muhammed Ali and lasted 15 rounds longer than anyone expected. If that sounds like Rocky, well it’s because Sylvester Stallone based his first screenplay on Wepner. That gave the endearing lug a second shot at fame right when cocaine became America’s favourite drug. Guess what happened next.
The movie plays more as gentle character comedy than anything else, with Falardeau clearly delighting in the opportunity to play with 70s movie aesthetics and fashions. It bounces along at a nimble pace with some delightful performances. Liev Schreiber goes for a big accent, but finds an even larger heart and remains tremendously endearing. Even his coked up downfall phase that lands him in prison plays more like a bleakly funny goof with his biggest bad influences coming in the form of comedians like Jim Gaffigan and Jason Jones. It’s bad behaviour comedy meets redemptive bio movie dramatics and endearingly entertaining with some hysterical celebrity impression performances tossed in.
Unfortunately the dramatic heft that Falardeau aims for in the last act never quite lands. Even though the “true story” label hangs over every frame suggesting that this needs to be considered one of those tremendously important prestige pictures, the 70s silliness always tends to overwhelm the feels. In particular, a late inning redemptive love story is more amusing because of real life couple Schreiber and Naomi Watts’ natural chemistry, not anything inherent to the story. It certainly adds to the layers of meta charm involved, yet confirms that the movie will never quite transcend its comedy core.
Still, this is pretty entertaining stuff and better than most contemporary boxing bios by a mile.