Bleed for This

Posted on November 17, 2016 at 5:44 pm

Copyright Sony 2016
Copyright Sony 2016
We watch sports for the skill.

We love sports for the heart.

Sports stories give us heroes whose determination and courage is constantly tested. The athletes who face those challenges — who live for those challenges — can help us understand and face our own. Vinny Pazienza was a great boxer, but what made him heroic was not his skill in the ring or his unprecedented wins in three different weight classes. It was his comeback from injuries he got in a deadly car crash, including a broken neck so severe that it was not clear whether he would ever walk again. He was given the choice between spinal fusion that would guarantee that he could walk but would prevent him from getting back in the ring, or six months in a Torquemada-style halo contraption literally screwed into his skull, where the slightest bump could paralyze him forever but, if everything went perfectly he might regain enough mobility to fight again, he chose the halo. He ended up resuming his training — against the advice of his doctors — and removing the halo after three months, then returning to boxing. Let me put it this way: knocked down worse by life than by any opponent in the ring, he was up by 9.

For his first film in more than ten years, writer/director Ben Younger (“Prime,” “Boiler Room”) tells the true story of one of the greatest comebacks of all time. Miles Teller, himself a survivor of a serious car accident, plays Pazienza, known as Vinnie Paz. We first see him sweating out the last few minutes before a weigh-in, swathed in plastic wrap, on a stationary bike, determined to make weight so he can still qualify as a lightweight. He just makes it, stripped down to a thong. That night, instead of getting some rest, he stays up most of the night playing blackjack and having sex. But the next day, he wins.

Vinnie loves his fights. After each one, he’s ready for the next. His mother listens from the next room, holding her rosary and lighting candles as his sister watches the fights on television. But his father (Ciaran Hinds) is literally in his corner, urging him on and arguing with his fight promoters. Vinnie switches to a new trainer, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), who has a sometime drinking problem but who has taken fighters all the way to the top. Kevin persuades him to stop trying to qualify for the junior welterweight class and put on some extra weight to fight as a junior middleweight. Things go pretty well until the car accident.

And that is how he learns who he is. Vinnie has never stopped for anything and nothing has stopped him. He worked hard at boxing, but never considered why or whether it mattered to him. Literally and metaphorically immobilized, he discovers that the combination of recklessness and determination gives him a way to get back in the ring.

Teller is one of the best young actors working today, and he makes Vinnie’s physicality real. His chemistry with Eckert gives what could be yet another boxing story hold our attention, even without the usual romance. Younger makes the family scenes of a rowdy middle class Italian vibrant — you can almost smell the oregano. And the story of resilience and redemption is always welcome, especially when it is as well told as it is here.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, brutal fight scenes, and graphic and disturbing images including a fatal car accident, surgery, and other medical procedures. Characters smoke and drink, including alcohol abuse.

Family discussion: Who helped Vinnie the most? Why did fighting matter so much to him?

If you like this, try: “The Fighter” and “Creed”

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Based on a true story Drama Sports

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