By John J. Raspanti
In the annals of movie history, boxing has played a distinctive role.
The “Little Tramp” Charlie Chaplin donned the mitts over a 100 years ago. In the 1940s, James Cagney, Errol Flynn, John Garfleld, Robert Ryan, and Kirk Douglas skillfully portrayed fighters.
Years later, Paul Newman and Anthony Quinn scored knockouts as Rocky Graziano and Mountain Rivera. In 1976, an unknown Sylvester Stallone captivated as Rocky, while four years later, Robert DeNiro delivered a critically-acclaimed performance as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.
The recent hit film Creed once again put the gritty boxing world in the spotlight.
All of the best films based on the "Sweet Science" have several things in common--a good story, a good director, and a believable leading man.
Chuck, starring Liev Schreiber, delivers on all counts.
Schreiber portrays former-contender Chuck Wepner, nicknamed “The Bayonne Bleeder,” a liquor salesman by day, and professional boxer by night, who went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali and was the inspiration for movie icon Rocky Balboa.
I remember Wepner well. I don’t think I saw an unbloodied picture of him until he fought Ali in 1975. His nickname, which he despised, was appropriate. He could have easily been called “The Human Bucket of Blood” for his propensity to bleed, sometimes it seemed, before his fights even began.
In 1970, after he was stopped by former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, Wepner needed 72 stitches to stop the crimson from flowing. Wepner could take it. His skin may have been thin as paper, but his chin was laced with cement.
Wepner didn’t mind the plasma. He was well aware of his athletic shortcomings. He’s a likable guy, reveling in his popularity after fighting Ali, and a year later, stunned by the success of Rocky.
As he tells his first wife Phyllis (superbly played by Elisabeth Moss), before his fight with Ali,“I just got to show I belong – I don’t care about getting hurt."
If anything, the movie, adroitly directed by Phillippe Falardeau, shows the dangers of fame. Chuck gets completely caught up in his own celebrity. He cheats on his long-suffering wife, indulges in drugs, and makes plenty of mistakes—which he readily admits. He’s a human being, loaded with doubt, but extremely engaging.
A moving scene in the film is when Chuck, while watching the classic boxing film, Requiem for a Heavyweight, recites the main character’s lines.
The film captures the 1970s beautifully. The clothes are right, and the soundtrack rocks. Falardeau includes archival footage from the times. For anyone under 50, “Chuck” will be something of a cultural history lesson.
Jeff Feuerzeig and Jerry Stahl’s script is intelligent and witty. The performances (including a great turn by Naomi Watts) from the cast is top-notch, but it’s Schreiber who dominates.
He’s full of humor and bravado, but also a guy who wants to do the right thing. It’s a masterful performance.
Chuck is a heartwarming retro throwback of a film, entertaining and funny, but also full of heart, just like the real Chuck Wepner.