Director: Phillipe Falardeau
Cast: Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Jim Gaffigan, Michael Rappaport, Pooch Hall, and Morgan Spector
Do you recognize the name Chuck Wepner? What if I told you that Chuck Wepner was a boxer who went the distance in the ring with Mohammad Ali when "The Greatest" was in his prime, in the first fight after Ali defeated George Foreman in Zaire in "The Rumble in the Jungle". Ring any bells? Sounds unbelievable right? Sounds like something out of a movie? Well, if you've seen the film "Rocky" then you've seen the film inspired by Chuck Wepner.
"Give the White Guy A Break", that's how boxing promoter Don King billed the fight between Wepner and Ali. The fight had everything good sports stories are made of, a blue collar underdog going up against a sports icon with a loud mouth, a scrappy fighter known for taking a punch (Wepner was nicknamed the "Bayonne Bleeder") verse a flashy fighter known for giving a punch, and at its core a fight that had more to do with the racial divide than it did for the talents of the fighters. The surprise of the whole thing, Wepner made it 15 rounds and knocked Ali down to the ground.
Director Phillipe Falardeau isn't so much concerned with the big fight, it plays a role as an early first act transition. What is emphasized is Wepner's life after the fight, the fame from the unexpected hit film "Rocky", the indulgence of women and drugs, and of course the subsequent fall from fame and the spotlight. Regardless of how much Mr. Falardeau tries to tell a different boxing story, the film still utilizes many of the familiar motifs found in sports/boxing films. But, just like Chuck Wepner, the film puts up a pretty good fight.
Liev Schreiber plays the embattled boxer, a liquor salesman one day and a local folk hero the next day, with charm and confidence. It's a quality that makes it all the more difficult to watch the character when mistakes are made over and over again. In one of the most cringe-worthy scenes Chuck is given an opportunity to try out for the "Rocky" sequel by Sylvester Stallone (played convincingly by Morgan Spector), his addictions ruin the opportunity. Mr. Schreiber maintains a grounded performance throughout that gives the character surprising appeal amidst his extensive flaws.
Elisabeth Moss plays Chuck's diligent and patient wife Phyliss with the steadfast hope that her unfaithful husband will change his ways, and when he doesn't she becomes a woman determined to never be stepped on again. Naomi Watts shows up for a supportive role as Chuck's new girl Linda, a woman unwilling to commit to a man who won't change or see that life has a different purpose than remaining relevant. It's a small role but Ms. Watts does a good job of creating quick chemistry with the Mr. Schreiber. Also making appearances are Jim Gaffigan as Chuck's best friend, Ron Perlman as his trainer, and Michael Rappaport as his brother. It's a good cast all playing support to Mr. Schrieber's lead.
Unfortunately as the film begins to delve into Wepner's downfall, the interesting character bits begin to disappear in favor of the standard biopic sentiments that gloss over a lifetime of information in order to show the upward trajectory for the character in the end. While Mr. Schreiber's performance and voice over narration help when the film begins to wane, the familiarity and compliance to never explore the fighting character more than surface interactions prevents the film from having a lasting effect.
3.00 out of 5.00