“You know what scares me about giving up? It’s easy.”
In 1991, a brutal car wreck left champion boxer Vinny Pazienza with a broken neck. Doctors said his chances of walking again were slim and that he’d never fight again. Miles Teller stars in “Bleed For This,” writer-director Ben Younger’s big-screen dramatization of Paz’s miraculous return to the ring — an inspiring, if predictable, testament to a man who refused to back down from impossible odds.
Teller balances Paz’s superhuman determination with down-to-earth charisma and humor. He’s a sly, upbeat, no-nonsense guy with an endless supply of energy. Teller makes Paz’s multifaceted transformations credible — from cocky champion before his accident to frustrated convalescent to a dogged fighter refusing to accept physical limits.
Aaron Eckhart co-stars as Paz’s trainer Kevin Rooney. Rooney used to train Mike Tyson, but the trainer’s career dwindled after trading the boxing ring for the bottle. Eckhart adds comedy and energy to the film’s bleakest moments, while Ciaran Hinds nails his role as Paz’s father, Angelo. He pushes Vinny to start boxing as a kid, but after Paz’s accident, refuses to endorse future fights. The three lead roles are, like the script, equal parts tough and tender.
Ben Younger’s vibrant direction immerses the audience in each scene. His visual style relies heavily on well-timed close-ups, gritty, handheld camerawork and cutaway shots but never distracts from the content of each scene. His camera astutely captures the place that made Vinny who he is: the blue-collar backstreets of Providence, Rhode Island, and the loving, quirky Italian-American family that brought him up. Each time Paz strides into a ring in Las Vegas, Younger cuts between him and his mother, aunts, sisters and cousins, huddled around a TV in a tiny living room, breathlessly anticipating each hook and jab.
Younger pulls no punches portraying Vinny’s injury. After the car crash, doctors build a “halo” around his neck. Four screws link metal bars to his skull through his skin. We grimace in pain as Vinny bangs these bars against a car door; we hold our breath as he leans under a bench press to lift the bar for the first time in months; we feel his agony as he refuses anesthetic, then rips the arm off a chair when doctors screw calcified links out of his skull. When he sets foot in the ring, we feel the glory of his recovery and the risk of his return. There’s no guarantee his fragile neck can withstand a punch.
“Bleed For This” succumbs to countless sports movie conventions. Its structure — an early victory, an obstacle and the hero’s comeback — has been used time and time again. Paz’s family cares for him and cheers him on throughout the film, but his mother, sisters and aunts lack the depth of his male relatives. Vinny adores boxing, but the film barely mentions why. His father hints at “roughness” getting him into the sport as a kid, and Paz publicly reps his blue-collar upbringing in each fight, but is being a product of his environment the only fuel for his fiery persistence?
Despite those flaws, the subject material in “Bleed For This” packs a winning punch. Paz didn’t give a damn about a broken neck; the pain only fueled his future fights. What didn’t kill him made him stronger, and failure to win back his strength was akin to a death sentence. After his comeback fight, a news reporter asks Paz the biggest lie he heard while boxing. “It’s not that simple,” he replies. “That’s the biggest lie. It is.”
His mind was committed, and he refused to accept any obstacle. It is that simple.