CHUCK, drama, R, Violet Crown,
If casting were all that mattered, this film coulda been a contender. Liev Schreiber plays Chuck Wepner, the New Jersey heavyweight known as the Bayonne Bleeder (the movie’s original title was who earned himself a measure of local legend by going (almost) 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali (Pooch Hall) in 1975. Ali finished him off on a TKO with 19 seconds left in the fight, and Wepner’s face a mask of gore. Schreiber is a fine actor. In his loud checked jackets and Sonny Bono mustache, he captures the spirit of the man and the place and the era, and he trained himself into plausible fighting shape for this role; but no amount of acting chops and friendly makeup can disguise the fact that at nearly fifty, he’s more than a dozen years older than Wepner was when he stepped into the ring that night.
Chuck Wepner had a day job peddling liquor to New Jersey bars, where he spent a lot of time, and a wife and young daughter at home, where he didn’t. Elisabeth Moss gives the movie’s standout performance as Wepner’s wife Phyliss, and a scene where she finds her errant hubby in a diner with a bimbo is as much of a knockout as anything Chuck ever dished out.
The Ali fight proves Wepner’s undoing. Welcomed back to the neighborhood as a hero after nearly going the distance with the two-time champ, he slides into a life of wine, women, song, and a blizzard of cocaine. Surrounded by pals like his manager (Ron Perlman) and his best friend (a likeable Jim Gaffigan), and a motley crew of hangers-on, his life hits the canvas.
Then the movie comes out, and Wepner recognizes himself, correctly, as the model for Sylvester Stallone’s punch-drunk hero. He engineers a meeting with Stallone (beautifully played by Morgan Spector), who greets him with open arms and even invites him to come audition for a small part in Had Wepner put even a quarter of the effort into preparing for the audition that he did into training for the Ali fight, it’s clear Stallone would have bent over backward to find a spot for him in the movie. But Chuck blunders in unprepared, stoked on coke and bluster, and blows his chance.
The other acting heavyweight in this life story is Naomi Watts, who makes the most of a few scenes as a tart-tongued bartender who won’t give the champ a tumble until he’s single and ready to reform.
Canadian director Philippe Falardeau has crafted a cautionary tale, told with affection and a lacing of regret, about a man of limited capabilities but a good heart. It’s not on the level of the great boxing movies (like Wepner’s muchviewed favorite), but it manages to hang in there doggedly for a few rounds. — Jonathan Richards