Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Ring rust: "Bleed For This"

The dream factory would appear to be repackaging many of its greatest hits this week, just in time for Christmas. Moana is the Disney quest narrative, painted in vibrant new shades; The Edge of Seventeen the coming-of-age pic, with bonus psychological depth. Ben Younger's Bleed for This is a boxer's rise and fall and rise again - you know, such as we all cheered in last year's Southpaw and this January's Creed - but I'm not so sure what it possesses in the way of special features. Its USP may just be that it's based on a true story, that of Vinny Paz (formerly Pazienza), the journeyman fighter - first seen here on the receiving end of a pummelling from a lesser-known Mayweather - who recovered from a broken neck and spinal injuries sustained in a car crash in 1991 to go toe-to-toe with no less a figure than Roberto Duran in a world title fight some four years later.

Paz is incarnated by Miles Teller, initially working from under a John Oates mullet-and-'tache combo, who displays more or less the same mixture of vulnerability and pugnacity he showed in the course of his Whiplash bootcamp: he absorbs every blow, and keeps coming back. This Paz is pitched as a regular working-class brawler: he's unruly (shown gambling and fucking on the eve of that Mayweather fight), subject to fluctuations in weight, prone to throwing punches after the bell, and very much the product of a cluttered blue-collar household in the heartlands. Scooping up the fractious, heavily accented chatter over the spaghetti meatballs on the family dining table, Younger is attempting to do for Vinny's native Providence, Rhode Island what David O. Russell's The Fighter did for Lowell, Massachusetts - one of several early signs the film might be somewhat lacking in the new ideas department. (The first training montage arrives after just twenty minutes: this may be a record.)

Yet where Russell let his actors off the leash, the better to see what they might add, scene by scene, everybody in Vinny's corner is kept very much on-script, and toeing to an altogether familiar line. The tale is several degrees more remarkable than the no-frills retelling it gets here: with Younger shrugging us past the accident to set about describing the fighter's comeback, Vinny's lows are allowed to feel not noticeably lower than his highs. Whatever effects the actors achieve appear cosmetic and faintly ridiculous. Aaron Eckhart, as Vinny's boozy trainer Kevin Rooney, operates with a shaved hairline and conspicuously whiny accent; Ciaran Hinds, as father-promoter Angelo, lands a grey bouffant and Elvis shades that leave him looking somewhat like a minor mafioso in The Sopranos

It's left to Teller, tacking the mass on and off as required, to carry our sympathies, and as in Whiplash and The Spectacular Now before it, this young actor has a nice way of retreating within those flushed puppy-fat cheeks at moments of crisis, to suggest an innately sensitive soul furiously beating itself up. Younger tosses him a couple of effective scenes of masochism, one involving the lifting of weights in the immediate wake of the accident - Vinny's heroic authenticity is only bolstered by the fact he made his comeback not with modern sports science but old-school, early Nineties muscle, in the grimy depths of his parents' garage - the other describing the removal of the screws in Vinny's neck brace, achieved without the aid of sedatives. (Sensitive viewers should probably look away, but it's one of the few instances where the film allows us to feel something of the pain inscribed in its title.) 

It does, however, feel a marked limitation that this director displays no particular flair for shooting fights: instead, Younger briskly Xeroxes all the angles from the actual HBO coverage, cutting away at predictable intervals to Vinny's nervy entourage at ringside or back on the sofa in Providence. It still engages on some moderate-to-low level - as triumph-of-the-spirit stories such as these often do - and I'd wager good money on it becoming the 2016 awards contender most likely to be watched dopey-eyed by sports fans on longhaul flights, which is one audience for it. Whether they'll leap to their feet cheering come the final reel remains to be seen, however: Bleed for This has nothing more in its fists than the basic facts, which is why Younger never comes close to landing the knockout blow - and even those viewers who don't know the story but have seen enough boxing pictures to know how boxing pictures work will surely see most of its moves coming.

Bleed for This opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

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