Greetings again from the darkness. You may be excused if you believe there have been enough boxing movies recently. Just last year, we saw Creed and Southpaw – both critically acclaimed and featured significant screen time inside the ropes. Writer/director Ben Younger returns with his first movie since 2005 (Prime) and teams up with screenwriter Angelo Pizzo to present the “based on a true story” of Rhode Island’s own Vinny Pazienza.
Mr. Pizzo is known for his work on inspirational sports films like Hoosiers, Rudy, The Game of Their Lives, and My All-American; so the fascinating and true story of Paz is right in his wheelhouse. See, The Pazmanian Devil (his nickname) was a terrific fighter, and is even more famous for his medically-defying comeback after a horrific car accident. The doctors doubted he would ever walk again, and offered Vinny no hope at all of ever fighting again.
Miles Teller (Whiplash, The Spectacular Now) plays Vinny Pazienza and obviously trained very hard to get in tip top shape. His boxing skills are well suited to the training sequences but must be creatively edited for the scenes in the ring. This is especially obvious when clips of the real Paz are inserted. Beyond that, Teller softens the overblown machismo of Pazienza and the boxing world. He captures the single-minded commitment of Pazienza, while making him a bit more likeable than the real man came off in interviews.
Aaron Eckhart is excellent as Pazienza’s (and Mike Tyson’s former) trainer, Kevin Rooney. It’s puzzling how Eckhart’s name ever came up for the role of a balding, pudgy, alcoholic who believes he’s been put out to pasture … but Eckhart and Teller together produce some wonderful scenes. Other support work comes from Ciaran Hinds and an underutilized Katey Sagal as Vinny’s dad and mom, and Ted Levine and Jordan Gelber as boxing promoters Lou and Dan Duva.
The comeback was as improbable as it was inspirational, and the decision to go with the Halo (metal brace that screws into the skull) over the neck fusion surgery could easily be categorized as foolish rather than courageous. But much of the story revolves around the internal make-up and competitive drive that made Vinny the man and the boxer that we see.
The film has more in common with The Fighter than either of the movies mentioned in the first paragraph, but it’s even more character study than boxing movie. This proud, driven, egotistical local from Providence held world titles at three different weight classes, refusing to be limited by the opinions of others. Rather than end with a classically Hollywood shot of victorious Paz celebrating in the ring, the film ends with an odd interview centered on his debate against the phrase “it’s not that easy”. It’s a stance that makes us question whether he ever learned the lessons of gamble vs risk. Mostly though, we marvel and agree that he’s a guy who deserves to be on a box of Wheaties.