Ben Younger’s workmanlike but nevertheless rousing Bleed for This accomplishes something that’s a tall order for any boxing movie: It makes the inspirational training-montage sequences weird. Those are generally the most requisite and unexciting element of the genre, but Bleed for This freshens them thanks to the strange and disturbing parameters of its based–on–fact plot. Here, our against–all–odds fighter hero, Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller), doesn’t mount his unlikely path to success in a crowded, sweaty gymnasium or among the at-dusk sidewalks of a quiet neighborhood — he does it in the basement of his parents’ Long Island home, in the middle of the night.
The victim of a near-fatal, head-on car accident, Vinny defies the restrictions of his bed-bound recovery — there’s a metal brace screwed into his head, a clear sign that he should never fight again — and gets to work bench-pressing at 3:30 in the morning. He covers the floor with blankets, so the thud of the weights won’t wake his family. Occasionally, when he drops something, his eyes dart nervously up, as if he fears his dad is about to come downstairs and catch him smoking weed.
Prior to the car accident, Bleed for This hits its marks more generically. At the start, Vinny — the product of a boisterous, joined-at-the-hip Italian-American family that delights in big dinners — is late to the weigh-in for a 1988 junior-welterweight title fight; he’s busy exercising in his hotel room, biking in Saran Wrap to sweat off weight to meet the 140-pound limit. After he loses the bout, in brutal fashion, to Roger Mayweather (Peter Quillin), his managing team — led by a scarily curt Ted Levine — pushes him to hang it up and retire. (This conversation takes place, wittily, in a child’s bedroom overrun with stuffed animals.) Vinny has other plans; a nondrinking, nonsmoking, fanatically hard-working athlete, he gets a new trainer, the big-bellied, hard-drinking Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), who promptly bumps him two weight classes to junior middleweight. Vinny beefs up and quickly sees the change pay dividends: His first junior-middle title fight, against a Frenchman, Gilbert Delé, goes his way, in front of an ecstatic hometown Providence crowd.
It’s not until the crash, though, that Younger and Teller start to distinguish the movie. Confined to the house and equipped with the surgical head brace — the product of a risky “halo surgery” — Vinny is forced into a period of reflection. The family’s lasagna dinners, once a source of calm, turn heated when sisters start passing Vinny condiments and utensils they never would have helped him with before. One of his girlfriends leaves him; get-well cards pile up next to his bed; and his father, Angelo (the Irish-born Ciarán Hinds), encourages him to think about a life after boxing. Each shot of Vinny just entering or exiting a car is excruciating, especially when his braces collide with the roof, a razor’s edge separating an everyday action from possible tragedy. Still, he tiptoes downstairs to try to lift weights, the screws from the surgery drilled into his forehead, one of the movie’s many vivid and unsettling illustrations of the single-minded drive of the born athlete.
This is a good role for Teller, in unexpected ways. Early on, with Vinny biking against the clock and exuding a garish confidence — he shows up to the weigh-in in leopard-printed underwear — the character plays too easily into the actor’s brash persona. But the more vulnerable Vinny becomes, the better Teller gets: This is, after all, a fighter who still has to tell his father when he’s going out and might be late for dinner. Teller’s repartee with Eckhart, meanwhile, is perhaps the movie’s signal joy. Their characters’ bickering and back-patting in the basement proves comic and uneasy at once — even as Vinny gets closer and closer to fighting shape, paralysis isn’t just a possibility. It’s a literal force right there in the metal wrapped around his head.
Vinny’s efforts are heroic and galvanizing enough to make this another November-release boxing-movie crowd-pleaser, like last year’s formidable Creed. But much of Bleed for This resonates in a manner that is pretty terrifying in the age of CTE. On multiple occasions, Vinny is described as being “all-in all the time”; he takes his body beyond the brink and finds the process rewarding. (Younger himself certainly does, too — to sometimes irresponsible lengths.) But his voracious determination can be hard to stomach, as when his mother, Louise (Katey Sagal) forces herself to retreat to a side room filled with lit candles during Vinny’s televised fights; she smokes cigarettes and listens on to the broadcast, but is unable to actually look at it. And a conversation between Vinny and Angelo about the injured son’s other career prospects (training kids, bartending) points to a movie that, in its own right, might be equally uplifting in its drawing of an athlete’s acceptance of a second life — a willing transition to a lifestyle founded on healthier behavior. But that’s not Vinny Pazienza, and Teller’s fierce evocation of the man’s extreme, at times uncomfortable resolve makes Bleed for This the rare boxing movie in which watching the hero win is difficult.