from tiff: ‘bleed for this’ is a light impact boxing biopic

Miles Teller is an undeniable talent, albeit one still waiting to match the greatness of the film that made him a star. Back in 2014, Damien Chazelle’s ‘Whiplash’, a ‘Raging Bull’-inspired musical tour de force in which boxing gloves are swapped for drumsticks, won the young actor the respect of both critics and fans alike. For a while, he’s been tied down by young adult fiction franchises and been left bobbing in the shallow end of Marvel’s comic book universe – neither of which making much use of his expertise. Two years later, Teller was still waiting, until his attachment to Ben Younger’s, Scorsese produced boxing flick ‘Bleed for This’ had his supporters chomping at the bit to see him succeed again.

On paper, Teller’s attachment to a comeback kid biopic set in the 1980’s contact sports scene feels like a surefire path to success. It did Christian Bale favours with The Fighter and worked out well for Mickey Rourke’s comeback in The Wrestler. But unlike those two films, ‘Bleed for This’ is a boxing tale told with light taps instead of furious punches, relying on its lead star to do the proper legwork.

The film tells the story of Vinny Pazienza, a former lightweight boxing champion who, after failing to keep his head in the game, is dropped by his manager and forced to move back in with his family. Later, with his mind straight and feeling ready to fight again he joins forces with Kevin Rooney, the former trainer of Mike Tyson, to make his almighty return to the sport.

Pazienza’s story is ready-made, Academy-friendly fodder that, if told with the right sense of emotional gravitas, could have wound up being a fairly good film. Instead of developing a compelling way to deal with the narrative, Younger has derived his depiction of the boxer and his family from the slew of sports films that came before it. Making use of the family’s ballsy Rhode Island accents and bad moustaches, it verges on parody territory at times which only helps us to struggle to resonate with these characters even more.

Aaron Eckhart makes a ‘you won’t believe that’s Aaron Eckhart!’ transformation into the character of Kevin Rooney, gaining a few stone and a receding hairline in the process. It’s the kind of transition his agent probably sold to him as a career-defining role slathered in Oscar potential – it’s not. Eckhart, while one of the film’s few genuinely likeable characters, has nothing to work with on paper.

And that’s the issue that lies at the crux of ‘Bleed for This’. Younger’s script feels all too familiar, as does the way he manifests it on screen. Its laughs are hardly clever and when it tries to tug the heartstrings, Younger’s lack of character development means there’s nobody tangible to feel for.

Despite this, it does succeed in providing two hours of, if slightly drawn out, harmless entertainment. There’s nothing overly offensive about it, but it falls into the middle of the pack leaving its predecessors with little to worry about. Fair, ‘Bleed for This’ might not be the brilliant return to form for Teller that it should have been, but there’s a crowd out there that will help make this an inevitable box office success.

★★★★★

Bleed for This opens in UK cinemas on December 2nd 2016

This review is part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival 2016