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Hollywood loves its boxing movies, but there are many cases that suggest a certain narrowness to the creativity in pugilist stories. After all, you can only have a heroic fighter battling his demons both inside and outside the ring so many times before it all starts to feel worn and done. That isn't the case for Bleed For This, however. Instead, director Ben Younger has uncovered an excellent true story about a boxer that is legitimately worth bringing to the big screen, putting together a movie that is impressive, unique, and inspiring.
Set in the late 1980s, the film centers on Vinny "Paz" Pazienza (Miles Teller): a young Rhode Island-based boxer who regularly wins, but needs to starve and dehydrate himself to make weight, and takes serious beatings. When these shortcomings lead to his career being in jeopardy, he starts working with a new trainer, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), an alcoholic who used to train Mike Tyson. At first, this transition winds up being very successful, and after Vinny is bumped up a weight class, his potential starts to seem limitless. Unfortunately, it's a journey that winds up being devastatingly interrupted.
Shortly after a major victory, Vinny is involved in a terrible car accident while driving to a casino with a friend, and wakes in a hospital to learn that his neck has been fractured. While his doctor recommends that he have his spinal column fused, it's an option that he refuses, knowing that it would mean never being able to box again. Against professional advice, he instead opts to spend six months in a Halo rig -- an option that he's repeatedly told is both dangerous and no guarantee of a path back towards fighting shape. While everyone in his life is terrified for him, Vinny is nothing but headstrong and determined, doing everything that he possibly can to get back in the ring.
To revisit the subject of boxing movie tropes, it's important to note that Bleed For This does have its fair share of derivative elements, as it's not only a familiar underdog story, but with its big ensemble of New England family members, it definitely shares some DNA with David O. Russell's The Fighter. What raises the film above these familiar elements, though, is just the fact that Vinny Pazienza's story is so unique. The narrative put forth by the movie is textbook "stranger than fiction," and even subconsciously (or consciously) knowing how it will all play out, you still can't really believe it all as you watch it unfold.
Further establishing himself as one of the best actors of his generation, Miles Teller puts on yet another fantastic performance as Vinny Pazienza, utilizing his impressive charisma in different ways within the role: first showcasing it within his energy as a real winner before the accident, and then letting it sell Vinny's impressive determination when he's fighting his way back into the world that he loves.
Great as Teller is, however, the big surprise MVP of Bleed For This is Aaron Eckhart, who puts in his second terrific supporting performance of the season following Clint Eastwood's Sully. To once again echo earlier sentiments, the drunk, has-been trainer is hardly the most original element that the film has to offer, but Eckhart plays Kevin Rooney in a way that has you cheering for his bounce back on the same level as Vinny Paz, and the level to which he supports his friend in his recovery as everything plays out makes his redemption feel equally satisfying by the time the credits are rolling.
Bleed For This is Ben Younger's first film in more than 10 years, and completely different than his previous titles (Boiler Room and Prime) -- but it's an exciting comeback to the medium say the least. It's a boxing movie that is successfully as compelling as it is stylistic, with some legitimately beautiful cinematography both in the ring and out of it. It has a lot to offer as the telling of a true story, and comes together as a fun cinematic treat.