Some sort of boxing pun indicating that Teller outperforms the film…
The clock ticks agonisingly slowly at the weigh-in for Vinny Paz vs. Roger Mayweather. Paz is nowhere to be seen and as the shot cuts to his hotel room it’s clear why. He is struggling to make the weight, exercising wrapped in cling film, trying to sweat it out with minutes to go. This fast-and-loose aspect of Vinny forms the ‘pre-crash‘ phase of his life. There are women, strip clubs and casinos. However, his world comes literally crashing down when a car accident in 1991 immobilises him. He is told he may not walk, let alone box again. He doesn’t take this lying down however, well he does because his spinal cord is hanging by a thread and he’s in a hospital bed, but in spirit he doesn’t. He chooses to recover the hard way, with a medieval-style brace (the ‘Halo’) holding his neck in alignment and secured in place by four screws drilled a quarter-of-an-inch into his skull. His recovery, an impossibly true story, is remarkable. Its veracity goes a long way to adding the gravitas required to elevate this from being just another adversity story or boxing yarn.
It’s a very well executed biopic by Ben Younger with an ensemble cast that live the highs and lows, ecstasies and body blows to create a reality around the surreal events of Paz’s life. The big, Italian-American Rhode Island family can border on stereotype, but Vinny himself has said that those playing his family members made it feel like they knew him their whole lives – so it’s accurate even when it feels cartoonish.
Ciarán Hinds (Munich, Game of Thrones, Rome) as his father Angelo Paz and Aaron Eckhart (Sully: Miracle on the Hudson, The Dark Knight) as his coach Kevin Rooney do a little sparring of their own, claiming different territory on his paternal landscape. This dynamic makes for the most interestingly drawn characters in a good contrast to the big, courageous, but linear disposition of Vinny. It might have been one of those stories where Angelo is a bad father pushing his son into boxing, but this isn’t the case. His struggle is how he expresses love for his son as the macho patriarch in a sporting arena that doesn’t foster touchy-feely displays of emotion. It’s not a smooth journey but the accident allows more intimate moments than they might otherwise have shared. Eckhart is nuanced as Vinny’s coach and Paz’s struggle drags him out of a life of drink and self-indulgence to become a sensitive support to his protégé. Knowing his father will refuse, it is Rooney who Paz entrusts with the knowledge of his secret rehabilitation sessions in the family basement.
Teller revisits pain for pleasure with the same verve and passion as he displayed in Whiplash. He has a talent for masochism. From broken-nosed and bleeding, seemingly hopeless bouts in the ring to screws being drilled into his cranium, Teller’s ability to convey raw determination against adversity is outstanding. In a scene also in the trailer, he rips off an arm of a hospital chair with the pain of having the ‘Halo’ screws removed without the aid of medication. Rumours that Tom Cruise would play the role when a biopic nearer the time of the accident was muted makes for an interesting comparison between he and Teller for the suitability for the part. Teller matches an auspicious physical presence with the swagger of arrogant self-belief and then turns in some great examples of smaller post-accident moments. No doubt Cruise could have built a physique, matched the action and showmanship but possibly would have been a less convincing recovering spinal injury patient.
After nearly two hours of believing these actors are who they are portraying, it’s almost a shame in the credits when they show archive footage of fights, press conferences and Paz’s recovery. It’s something that feels like it might be necessary at the start of the film, but once the trust builds it was like the filmmakers were waving their homework in the air to prove they had done it. This is only a complaint when considering the good job they did to maintain a straight drama that didn’t rely on cutting in archive footage to legitimise it.
Bleed For This doesn’t do anything particularly new. It’s Miles Teller with help from Eckhart that raises the story further out from a morbidly-fascinating illustration of a horrific situation. The ringing sound of the opening knockout and the crunch of the screws as Paz is extracted from his ‘Halo’ will leave you physically squirming. Of course Vinny Paz did do something singular and that is what ultimately makes this a story worth telling, and watching.
Review by George Meixner