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Movie review: ‘Bleed for This’ tells of boxer’s remarkable comeback

Ciaran Hinds, Miles Teller and Aaron Eckhart in “Bleed for This.”
Ciaran Hinds, Miles Teller and Aaron Eckhart in “Bleed for This.” Open Road Films

Here’s a story for you: A boxer at the pinnacle of his career — he’s just won a title bout — gets his neck broken in a head-on car crash.

Prognosis: With surgery maybe, just maybe, he’ll be able to walk again. But fight again? Fuggeddaboudit. Not happening. No way.

In “Bleed for This,” Rhode Island boxer Vinny Pazienza’s response to that can be summed up simply as: Way.

About a year after the crash, after months spent wearing a metal brace called a Halo that is bolted to his skull — let’s shudder as the bolts are screwed in, and shudder still more as they’re unscrewed while Vinny screams — he’s climbing back into the ring. To box. To engage in an activity where the goal is to knock the other guy’s block off. Take that, fractured neck bone. This causes everyone near and dear to him to inwardly shudder and outwardly cheer.

True story.

A tale of grit and indomitable willpower, then, told in a picture that has grit in abundance. That applies particularly to the visuals, which are gritty to the point of dinginess, full of harsh neon blues and basement browns. The impression is of visuals that are somehow half-finished.

In the central role, Miles Teller is impressively bulked up but there’s a flatness in his performance. It’s a dogged, rather than an inspired, portrayal,

The best work is done by Aaron Eckhart who plays Vinny’s trainer, Kevin Rooney. Nearly unrecognizable with a balding noggin and a nearly impenetrable Rhode Island accent, Eckhart’s Rooney is a hard-drinking cuss who cares deeply for his fighter and tries hard to talk Vinny out of his seemingly insane quest. “Let it go,” he urges. But he reluctantly comes around and trains the fighter in the basement of Vinny’s house.

Under director-writer Ben Younger, the fight scenes are indifferently staged, with flurries of close-ups and lots of long shots that drain the action of urgency, although the filming in the final bout is brutally effective.

About that bout: For Vinny’s dramatic 1992 comeback, Younger has him fighting Robert “Hands of Stone” Duran. In fact, his opponent was Luis Santana, a much lesser-known boxer. Vinny did fight Duran twice later on, beating him both times.

That kind of divergence from the truth is common in movies based on actual events, but it’s galling in a picture that wants to you believe it’s telling it like it is — or was.

Bleed for This

out of 5

Cast: Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart, Katey Sagal, Ciarán Hinds, Ted Levine.

Director: Ben Younger.

Running time: 1:57.

Rated: R, for language, sexuality/nudity and some accident images.

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