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Review: The Bleeder – “The life affirming story of the real Rocky Balboa”

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The Bleeder, aka Chuck, is directed by Philippe Falardeau (The Good Lie). It stars Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan), Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks), Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, The Handmaid’s Tale, Top of the Lake), Ron Perlman (Hellboy) and Jim Gaffigan (The Jim Gaffigan Show).

The film has been a passion project for Schreiber. He plays the lead character, Chuck Wepner, a liquor salesman from New Jersey. He also co-wrote the film, which is the life affirming story of the real Rocky Balboa….yes, you read that right.

Heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner went 15 rounds in the stunning 1975 heavyweight world championship against Muhammad Ali and was the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. Yet many of you reading this may have never heard of him. Oh, and he also fought a bear.

There have been a few documentaries and books about Wepner. As the voiceover states, Wepner he could take a punch, which meant he ended up making quite a good reputation for himself. Over his ten year career, he had his nose broken eight times, had over 100 stitches and had two knockouts. It was his hardiness that was one of the main reasons he got to fight Ali. Don King wanted somebody who could go a few rounds. He was also the first man to knock Ali off his feet during a title fight. In the film, Wepner says he tried to “wear him down with my face!”

This new film takes a closer look at the man outside the ring. Wepner had a fascinating life, but he did make many mistakes. The Bleeder takes us through the highs and the many lows he went through, but never loses sight of his humanity. From his failed marriage to first wife Phyllis (Elisabeth Moss) to meeting his second wife Linda (Naomi Watts) we see everything. He was a womaniser, a drug user and made many stupid decisions. Yet he was also funny, charming in a certain way and believed in himself. However, he either had a self-destructive streak or kept the wrong company. His best friend John (Jim Gaffigan) could have stepped back and given some words of advice, but he was enjoying the drugs and booze as much as Wepner. Maybe his manager and trainer, Al Braverman (Ron Perlman) could have done more?

At the end of the day, it all came down to Chuck and the decisions he made. The way the film is told, Chuck knew full well all of the mistakes he made and while the film does take us down to dark places, it never dwells there too long. This is a man’s life and they all have their ups and downs.

Schreiber does great things as Chuck. While you watch him make bad decision after bad decision you cannot help but like the guy. You can see why he was popular at the time, but Schreiber also manages to portray the heartbreak when Wepner realises he has once again messed up. The time he auditioned for a role in Rocky 2 is a great scene. It makes you cringe but gives you an insight into this strong man who was so weak at times. His addictive personality always seemed to be chasing drugs and fame.

All this sounds rather depressing, but there is a lot of natural humour throughout the film. Wepner was always cracking wise and some of the situations he found himself in (such as the bear fight) were ridiculous, but funny.

The supporting cast is also spot on. Elisabeth Moss is particularly good as Phyllis. It is also good to see Jim Gaffigan in a role that, although has its funny moments, is more a straight role than one would expect from the comedian. Ron Perlman is always brilliant, but Michael Rapaport steals the film while only being in a couple of scenes. He is such a brilliant actor. Pooch Hall, who also stars with Schreiber in Ray Donovan, didn’t quite work for me as Muhammad Ali. He is only in the film for a few scenes, but he never quite captured the charisma of Ali. Morgan Spector’s Stallone was very good, but again was only in the film for a few short scenes.

The relationship with Linda also felt a bit rushed. Grants, Watts and Schreiber were brilliant in their scenes together, but the relationship just seemed to come out of the blue. I suppose that is always the problem of making a biopic. If it covers a few years then there will be some moments that move too quickly.

For the majority of the film, we are in the 1970s, which brings all the clothes, cars, disco, drugs and tacky interior designs that you could imagine. The film does give us a tremendous sense of time, which helps keep things focussed. Falardeau does an excellent job keeping everything together as we move through the years. I look forward to seeing what he does next.

Even if you are not a fan of boxing, The Bleeder is well worth a watch.

Lionsgate UK presents The Bleeder on DVD, Blu-ray & Digital from August 21st.

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