Liev Schreiber totally transforms himself into boxer Chuck Wepner in the conventional biopic “Chuck,” a movie about a man known for being able to take many punches. Wepner was nicknamed “the Bayonne bleeder” because he usually lost a lot of blood in the ring without getting knocked out, which is partly why he was picked by promoter Don King to fight against Muhammad Ali for the World’s heavyweight title in 1975.
“Chuck” details Wepner’s home life before that famous fight and his relationship with his wife Phyllis (Elisabeth Moss), a postal worker who is continually getting angry about Wepner’s philandering. French-Canadian director Philippe Falardeau (“The Good Lie”) is burdened with creating the look and feel of the 1970s in New Jersey — and he does the best he can with the budget he had — but “Chuck” too often has a cramped feeling, as if it has to keep its focus small in order to provide any semblance of period believability. Falardeau makes due here with easy ’70s signifiers like gold couches, Telly Savalas in “Kojak” on TV, and the expected disco songs on the soundtrack.
Nobody expected Wepner to do much against the force and showmanship of Ali, but he managed to knock Ali down in the ninth round and took a beating from the champ over and over again while remaining doggedly upright. Until the 15th round, that is, when Wepner hit his knees, and the fight was called on a technical knockout with just 19 seconds left. “I couldn’t hit him, so I figured that I’d wear him down with my face,” says Schreiber’s Wepner.
The young Sylvester Stallone was so touched and impressed by Wepner’s stoicism that he wrote and directed “Rocky,” which became a huge success and won the Oscar for Best Picture. Wepner didn’t get any money out of “Rocky,” and the middle section of “Chuck” provides a nearly morbid level of detail about how this man tried and mainly failed to cash in on his connection to a famous movie.
Wepner’s marriage to Phyllis finally falls apart due to his drug-taking and orgiastic womanizing, and his attempt to ingratiate himself with Stallone (a very convincing Morgan Spector, “Christine”) results in humiliation as he attempts to audition for a role in “Rocky II” and finds that he can’t act the part of himself.
If you look at footage of Wepner being interviewed and fighting Ali, you can see that Schreiber has become this man for the camera, capturing Wepner’s low bruiser voice, his hulking physicality, and his overall hangdog presence. Schreiber is even able to slip into a note-perfect imitation of Anthony Quinn in the boxing picture “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” Wepner’s favorite movie.
Schreiber has a very poetic moment in “Chuck” when Wepner watches himself on the “Mike Douglas Show” and doesn’t like what he sees. He turns the TV off, and then Schreiber gently touches the blank screen with his hand. This gesture is the touchstone of Schreiber’s performance as a man who both likes himself too much and doesn’t like himself at all, a dirty fighter who is somehow always on the outside of his own life and career.
There comes a point in “Chuck” where Wepner visits his brother (Michael Rapaport) because he has no one else to share his excitement with after “Rocky” wins some Oscars, and it becomes apparent that Wepner hasn’t seen him in a while and can’t even quite remember how many kids he has. This could be chalked up to too many blows to the head, but “Chuck” presents this as evidence that Wepner has kept his own family at arm’s length in order to chase after drugs, women, and fame.
“There’s more to you than meets the eye, Chuck Wepner,” says Linda (Naomi Watts), a Jersey bartender who will eventually become his second wife. “Not much, but just enough,” she says, and the same might be said of “Chuck” itself, which dutifully allows Schreiber to show off his skill as an actor while making us question the need for a narrative movie about Wepner, who is seen in the last shot amiably strolling along the beach with the real-life Linda.
“Chuck” takes a small subject and turns it into a basic redemption story, and as such it has some merit. Not much, but just enough.