Greetings again from the darkness. “That guy could take a punch.” It’s supposed to be a compliment and knowing nod to the machismo and toughness so valued in the world of boxing. Instead that trait is responsible for the two claims to fame for heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner: he shockingly went 15 rounds (minus 17 seconds) against Muhammad Ali in 1975, and was the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar winning movie Rocky.
Director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) and the four co-writers (Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Cristopher, Liev Schreiber) spend very little time in the boxing ring or with the usual training montages, and instead focus on how Wepner’s ego and inability to handle fame affected his family, his health and his life. This is a portrait of Chuck the man, and it’s at times more painful than the barrage of punches Ali landed in Round 15.
Liev Schreiber is outstanding as ‘The Bayonne Bleeder’, the disparaging (but accurate) sobriquet that stuck with Wepner – thanks to his propensity to bleed in most bouts. His self-motivation to “Stay up Chuck” against Ali (played here by Schreiber’s “Ray Donovan” brother Pooch Hall) is what became the foundation for Stallone’s Rocky screenplay. There are a few terrific scenes with Wepner and Stallone (a spot on Morgan Spector) as Wepner desperately tries to latch onto the Rocky bandwagon, going so far as to introduce himself as “the real Rocky”. It’s tough for an actor to get Oscar consideration for a performance in the first half of the year, but Schreiber is worthy.
It’s not the first time we have seen the pitfalls of instant fame and celebrity status, and even though it’s a true story, there is a familiarity to it that makes the plight of this lovable lug quite easy to relate to. Wepner’s blue collar narcissism may have been the cause of much of the pain in his life, but it also allowed him to become a folk hero. His connection with Anthony Quinn in Requiem for a Heavyweight provides all the personality profile we require to grasp Wepner’s make-up.
The supporting cast is strong. Ron Perlman plays Wepner’s manager/trainer Al Braverman, Jim Gaffigan is his hero-worshiping corner man and cocaine accomplice, Elisabeth Moss plays wrongly-done first wife Phyllis, Michael Rappaport is estranged brother John, and Naomi Watts (she and Schreiber ended their long-term relationship soon after filming) as his confidant and second wife Linda. Moss and Rappaport each have very strong scenes … scenes that remind us that these are real people and not part of some fairy tale.
Director Falardeau delivers no shortage of 1970’s cheese – wardrobe, facial hair, disco music, party drugs, and night clubs – but there is also enough humor to maintain balance: Wepner explains after the Ali fight how he tried to “wear him down with my face”. By the end we aren’t sure if Wepner was self-destructive or simply lacking in dependable counsel. Either way, the journey of self-discovery is even more interesting than the boxing career, and the film is punctuated with closing credit footage that provides viewers with a sense of relief. A tragic ending has been averted, and Chuck remains a local Bayonne, New Jersey resident – even if he’s no longer a bleeder.