Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar, The Good Lie) directs Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, and Naomi Watts in this biopic of New Jersey boxer Chuck Wepner, whose legendary ability to take punishment in the ring made him the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky.
The story of Chuck Wepner is unique in the annals of boxing. Though he was the inspiration for Rocky, he is most famous for the fights he lost. Among those he ceded titles to were George Foreman, Sonny Liston, and Muhammad Ali, with whom he went 15 gruelling rounds. A New Jersey guy with a blue-collar work ethic, Wepner was dubbed "The Bayonne Bleeder" on account of his ability to take punishment without going down. Featuring finely textured performances from Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, and Naomi Watts, The Bleeder tells the story of Wepner's career in all its bruising, fascinating detail.
Written by Jeff Feuerzeig (The Devil and Daniel Johnson) and Jerry Stahl (Permanent Midnight), The Bleeder follows Wepner (Schreiber) through his peak years both in and out of the ring. The film offers a complex portrait of his domestic life, particularly his marriages to second wife Phyllis (Moss), whose support and patience is stretched to the breaking point by Wepner's bouts of debauchery, and third wife Linda (Watts), who proves to be the grounding force he needs. But its main event is his 1975 fight against Ali (Pooch Hall), with whom the affable Wepner shares an endearing backstage camaraderie. There is less glory when Wepner tries to go Hollywood by doggedly pursuing work with the young Sylvester Stallone (Morgan Spector), whose Academy Award–winning film was only selectively drawn from Wepner's actual life. Stallone is warmly receptive, but the limits of this relationship are awkwardly plain.
Director Philippe Falardeau (who helmed TIFF 2011 Best Canadian Feature winner Monsieur Lazhar) is an ingenious observer of behaviour. He eschews sensationalism in favour of character building — and reaps the rewards with Schreiber, who gives the most boldly physical, fully lived-in performance of his career. The Bleeder is Raging Bull in reverse, a kind of kitchen-sink sports drama in which underdog humility is prized over brute force.