Trotting a familiar course and hitting every well-worn beat along the way, “The Bleeder” should probably not work as well as it does. But the boxing drama, which tells the life story of a coulda-been contender who became the real-life inspiration for Rocky Balboa, works a bit like the pugilist at its heart. “The Bleeder” lays its many faults front and center, but dammit if its rakish charms don’t win you over all the same.
The film — which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this week along with its similarly punchy boxing-flick brother “Bleed for This” — stars Liev Schreiber as Chuck Wepner, scrapper schnook from Bayonne, New Jersey. A low-level enforcer, liquor salesman and lovable meathead, Wepner rather improbably found himself going up against Muhammad Ali in a 1975 heavyweight bout; even more improbably, Wepner went toe to toe with the Greatest for 15 rounds, losing on a technical knockout with only seconds left in the match.
“The Bleeder” hits all those notes, plucking the pugilist from bridge-and-tunnel obscurity and watching him rise, preen, celebrate his success and revel in excess, then inevitably fall.
It does so with buoyant, crowd-pleasing energy, driven by director Philippe Falardeau’s restless 16mm camera, a golden-oldies soundtrack and Schreiber’s endearing narration. Wepner, for all his talents in the ring, was also a lout, a lush and an unrepentant philanderer, while “The Bleeder,” for all its winsome verve, is absolutely slathered in plodding exposition and broad-strokes story beats telegraphed from a mile away.
The film’s expositional style is less “show, don’t tell” than it is “show and tell and then lay on voiceover to tell us again.” When Wepner is arrested in the film’s cocaine-fueled fall-from-grace second half, he pipes up in voiceover to remind us, “that was a real low point,” as if the look on Schreiber’s face, and the somber notes on the soundtrack and sheer fact that it’s a fall-from-grace beat in a rise-and-fall narrative wasn’t enough.
And yet! For all the film’s on-the-nose mechanics and eagerness to smooth out rough edges, “The Bleeder” is such a labor of love that you can’t help but hop on board. Schreiber, who is so often cast for his brooding intensity, is clearly delighted to play this lovable meathead (and it’s clear that he had a strong hand in crafting the role — he also shares producer and co-writer credits).
His joy is palpable and contagious, most of all in scenes he shares with love interest Naomi Watts, which crackle with Joisey punch. (Their chemistry should come as no surprise, mind you, as the two actors have been married for several years.)
But the joie du jeu really extends across the entire film. As Wepner’s beleaguered first wife, Elisabeth Moss takes what could be a pro-forma role and fills it with self-confident sass. Comedians Jim Gaffigan and Jason Jones do great character turns as Wepner’s sleazebag entourage, and Ron Perlman is a hoot as the boxer’s Yiddish-spouting trainer.
Falardeau and crew seem equally on board for the good time, joyously recreating that ’70s scuzzball aesthetic with every comb-over and wood panel at their disposal.
Little of “The Bleeder” feels particularly fresh, but then why should it, when it tells of stale tobacco and cheap cologne and does so rather well? “There’s more to you than meets the eye,” says a character at one point in a line that about sums up the film. “Not much — but just enough.”