Director: Philippe Falardeau
Cast: Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Jim Gaffigan, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Michael Rapaport, Morgan Spector, Pooch Hall, Jason Jones, William Hill, Wass Stevens
MPAA Rating: (for language throughout, drug use, sexuality/nudity and some bloody images)
Running Time: 1:41
Release Date: 5/5/17 (limited); 5/12/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | May 11, 2017
It should come as no surprise that the true story behind a movie is bleaker than the cinematic telling. Chuck presents a bit of a dilemma in presenting the movie version of the true story that inspired another film, especially when the existence of that film plays such a key role in the real story. It's complicated.
It's not so complicated in this screenplay (written by Jeff Feuerzeig and Jerry Stahl), which tracks a fairly familiar course of a man's big rise, long fall, and sudden shift to normalcy. It's a story that's mainly about those beats, with little insight into the central character and a shrug of a conclusion.
The man is Chuck Wepner (Liev Schreiber), who—during the opening section of a voice-over narration that never ceases for the rest of the movie—tells us that, while we may not know his name, we definitely know who he is. He's a boxer from Bayonne, New Jersey, whose calling card is that he's adept at taking a beating. The locals call him "the Bayonne Bleeder," although rarely to his face. Even a fighter with a reputation for enduring punches isn't a man with whom some random guy on the street wants to deal.
At the story's start, Chuck is the eighth-ranked heavyweight fighter in the world, although he still has to work a job. That job is to go to local bars and push some liquor. His boss figures he can strong-arm some people if necessary, but Chuck is of the opinion that, again, nobody's going to want to mess with a professional boxer if it comes to it.
This might sound a bit familiar, and that's the point. Chuck thinks he has a chance for a title bout against George Foreman, if Foreman can defeat Muhammad Ali (Pooch Hall) in the upcoming "Rumble in the Jungle." Ali, of course, wins, but the Greatest's manager Don King decides that the champion's next match should be "a race thing." Since Chuck is the only white boxer in the top 10, he's on deck.
Chuck knows he likely can't beat Ali, but he wants to prove everyone wrong. He wants to "go the distance" with Ali.
He'd be quoting a film here, of course, if the film had been made yet. The big reveal at the end of the first act, after Chuck almost goes the distance with Ali (missing the bell to end the final round by a matter of seconds), is that someone wants to make that movie. Some actor named Sylvester Stallone (played in this movie by Morgan Spector) has written a screenplay inspired by Chuck's life. If there's a major takeaway here, it's that, when some producer in Hollywood calls, your next call should be to a decent lawyer.
Yes, Wepner was the inspiration for the film Rocky, which, according to this movie, inspired everyone—except, apparently, for the boxer whose life story inspired it. It would be a joke, if not for the heavy hand with which director Philippe Falardeau handles the material.
The entire movie seems to trying for an extreme act of subversion, and if that isn't clear, then surely Chuck's narration makes the point. There have been a lot of stories about him, he says, most of them fake—and most of the fake ones, apparently, created by him—and some them true. The opening scene ends with him, at a point that might as well be subtitled "rock bottom," preparing to fight a bear. That story, Chuck assures us, is true.
The point, repeated over and over directly or indirectly, is that real life isn't like the movies. Chuck's relationship with his wife Phyliss (Elisabeth Moss) is constantly derailed by his need for approval from other people, especially women who look at him with any hint of admiration. It's a testament to Moss' performance that she makes a lengthy monologue, in which Phyliss psychoanalyzes her husband's philandering to a random woman that he's trying to woo (and, by extension, the audience), come across as anything but the transparent exposition that it is.
With the accidental fame that Chuck obtains from Rocky, he starts dressing like the eponymous character, getting involved with more and more women (including a bartender, played by Naomi Watts, whom Chuck decides he loves during their first meeting), and snorting a lot of cocaine. Along for the ride is his buddy John (Jim Gaffigan), who serves as a personality-free sounding board for Chuck to explain how he's feeling at any given moment. His manager Al (Ron Perlman) gets him a few gigs, including a fight with a professional wrestler and that bear, but nothing lives up to the screen persona that he feels as if he's entitled to be.
There's a lot of potential in that idea, but the movie never quite addresses it, save for Chuck eventually realizing that such an expectation is a tragic flaw. The point, of course, is to show Wepner as more—and, by some measure, considerably less—than his cinematic alter ego, but Chuck just turns him into a series of anecdotes. Ironically, he's just another movie character here, only with his real name.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
Buy Related Products