Starring: Liev Schreiber, Noami Watts, Elizabeth Moss, Ron Perlman, Michael Rapaport
Director: Philippe Falardeau
Back in 1975 in New Jersey, a liquor salesman with a modest fighting career was pitted against the great Muhammed Ali. But he was a man with his own inner demons to fight… Sound familiar? It’s the story of Chuck Wepner, who was the real life inspiration for the film Rocky. This movie tells his story from the dizzying highs to the crushing lows.
Wepner (Schreiber) is a charming man who can’t seem to get out of his own way. He’s a man who loves the spotlight, but some part of him craves something that’s missing. Something within himself that drives him to cheat on his loving wife, let down his daughter and ultimately do time for dealing cocaine. It’s not until he finds that thing within himself that he can really love a woman (Watts) and accept the love of his family. But what I love about this film is that even though that material could make for a really sappy, cheesey film, this film does something beautiful and simple with it’s material. It has heart.
In some sense, watching this I felt like this was almost an anti-boxing film, in the sense that it hits all the beats of boxing films as a genre but almost in a ironic way, or in a way that skewers the glamour of those films. It has a more colourful palette than most boxing films, not the usual grey, gritty tones, but rather a 70’s glam. Wepner cheats on his wife, but it’s not pretty and he loses precious that he needs in his life when he loses her. It’s a sad moment. When he does cocaine, it’s funny, but also ugly, not glamourised. And when he meets the man who made a movie out of his life, Stallone wants to be a friend but Chuck can’t help but sabotage himself.
But on the flipside, it’s a film with humour and colour. It’s vibrant. Wepner might be hapless, but Schreiber manages to show him as a man who is ultimately very likable, who has a warmth. So many little moments in this film made me feel compassion for him, as he muddles his way through. You get the sense that he’s human, he’s real, and life isn’t a movie. But it can be a very interesting story.
The supporting cast also do a fine turn. Elizabeth Moss as his wife feels like a natural fit. She’s a woman who loves her husband, loves to see him shine, but ultimately won’t take being treated badly. She’s nobody’s fool. Ron Perlman is, well, there’s just something about a Perlman performance, isn’t there? He’s a colourful man, here made to look like a greasy boxing promoter and manager. And of course, Watts is wonderful as a kind of glamorous and tough bar tender, a brash and brassy red head with long fake nails and too much makeup who you can’t help but love, and who Wepner doesn’t stand a chance with.
I’m a fan of a boxing film. And I loved what this film did with the genre. It’s a warm film, full of the colour and charm of Wepner’s personality, as channeled through Schreiber. It has that 70’s glamour and tone, which I always love. It’s often funny and bright, but there’s darkness here handled without descending into melodrama. I liked the characters journey into himself, hitting bottom and struggling with real world problems. There are some little wobbly bits in this film, the casting of Ali and Stallone felt kind of off and a bit cheesey, but it certainly doesn’t detract from the success of the film at all. I really enjoyed it. I think if you’re a Rocky or sports film fan, this should be on your watch list for sure.
See It If: you like boxing movies, it’s definitely one for the Rocky fans. It’s also a really nicely handled drama and biopic. I enjoyed it a great deal.