Considering that Chuck Wepner was renowned as one of the strongest heavyweights of the 1970s, it's ironic that you come out of his biopic feeling as though you've not quite seen its full weight. While Liev Schreiber is utterly transfixing and there are one or two sequences of note, Chuck ultimately becomes a rudimentary biopic and story of drugs and decline rather than a worthwhile probing of the boxer and Rocky inspiration.
Set in Bayonne, New Jersey, Chuck quickly establishes its leading character as a more than proficient boxer, who also has to pay the bills by working as a liquor salesman. However, all of that changes when he gets the chance to fight Muhammad Ali in 1975, which sees him blossom from a minor local celebrity to the world stage.
Chuck Wepner is quickly written off, though, and his odds are even as long as 40/1 for him to win the bout. But after more than holding his own in the contest, even knocking Ali down and managing to just about go the distance, Wepner's stock rises even higher. Especially after Rocky is released in 1976, which appears to heavily be based on his life. This fame goes to Chuck Wepner's head, though, and in order to maintain the lifestyle he has only just acquired he becomes a drug dealer, as well as an addict.
Chuck is never unpleasant to watch. In fact, its 101-minute running time proceeds at a leisurely pace that, while hardly gripping, is never tedious. During its opening stages, where we are introduced to Chuck, his second wife Phyllis (Elisabeth Moss), his manager and trainer Al Braverman (Ron Perlman), his life in Bayonne, there's a homely and relatable zest to the film that you can't help but get wrapped up in. Especially with Liev Schreiber's narration helping to guide the film along. It also doesn't take too long for the Muhammed Ali plot point to emerge, and Chuck's preparation, his mentality, and the fight itself are handled with deference and care. Rather than going hell for leather with the punches or violence, director Philippe Falardeau uses the sequence to emphasis Chuck's endurance, and it immediately gets you on his side and invested.
It's just a shame then that Chuck, as both a character and a film, withers after the Ali fight. It's not that Chuck's decline into debauchery is handled poorly, but the drug scenes and his increased arrogance amidst his decline is overly familiar, and something that we have seen way too many times before, especially within the boxing genre.
At the same time, there are moments from Chuck's life that are fleetingly presented, which probably deserved more attention. His bout with Andre The Giant and his fight with a bear, which were roundly mocked, are basically used as punch-lines, when in actual fact a deeper look could have proved more revelatory. Instead, we get scenes of Chuck doing drugs and pursuing Naomi Watts' Linda. Even Chuck's pursuit of Sylvester Stallone after the huge success of Rocky, and the pair's attempts to land Wepner a part in the sequel, lack the necessary guile or impact, as the film just kind of trudges along.
But amidst this mediocrity are some truly stunning performances. Liev Schreiber is especially towering in his titular role, and he is able to single-handedly add some heft when the film is lacking. While Elisabeth Moss is just as eye-catching as Phyllis, with the scene in the diner where she confronts both Chuck and his mistress a particular example of just how dazzling, strong, and unique she can be. It's just a shame that the couple's separation keeps them apart for the second half of the film. Plus, Ron Perlman turns up and immediately impresses, as only Ron Perlman can, while the perfectly cast Michael Rapaport gives an affecting performance, despite his scant amount of screen-time, as Chuck's estranged brother. Despite their best efforts, though, Chuck remains a solid but nevertheless bland addition to the boxing biopic genre, and its lack of punch is something its inspiration would surely be disappointed with.