J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Tribeca ’17: Chuck

His story might sound familiar, but it is important to understand he is the original article. New Jersey’s own Chuck Wepner was the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky and by extension, dozens of underdog boxer-wrestler-mixed martial artist films. Wepner was uncharitably known as the “Bayonne Bleeder” due to his unfortunate propensity to suffer cuts in the ring, but nobody ever questioned his toughest. Take a trip back to the 1970s to revisit the grunge and the glory of boxing at the peak of its popularity in Philippe Falardeau’s Chuck (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York following its U.S. premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Wepner’s skills were never that spectacular, but his cement head and dogged determination won him enough fights to eventually rank him in the top ten. He just so happened to be the top-ranked white guy just when Muhammad Ali and Don King were looking for a low-stress title defense they could racially hype. However, Wepner turned out to be one of the few “Great White Hopes” in the history of boxing who exceeded expectations. Of course, he never came close to winning, but he hung in there, making it one of Ali’s ugliest victories ever.

He was already a local celebrity in Jersey, but Wepner’s gutty performance made him a minor media celebrity for fifteen minutes. Inevitably, it goes to his head, costing him his marriage to the long-suffering Phyl. Yet, just like the movie boxers he inspired, Wepner would have a chance at redemption, but he would have to look outside the ring.

Chuck (a.k.a. The Bleeder) is a terrific sports biopic that hits all the right notes. Falardeau and his design team capture all the grit and sleaze of the 1970s, cruelly inflicting a relentlessly era-appropriate wardrobe on the big-name cast. The Monsieur Lazhar helmer sure-footedly balances the outrageousness of Wepner’s frequently over-the-top persona (the film opens in media res with an aging Wepner’s barfight with a trained bear) and the grimy realism of the Jersey milieu.

Liev Schreiber (the bane of auto-spelling corrections) is also pitch-perfect as Wepner. He lays out all of the fighter’s myriad character flaws for all to see, but he also connects with Wepner’s insecurities. Schrieber develops potent but utterly believable chemistry with both Elizabeth Moss (who is utterly devastating when tearing into the cheating Wepner in a pivotal fall-from-grace scene) and a nearly unrecognizable Naomi Watts, playing the woman who stood by Wepner at his lowest moments. Plus, for even further hardnosed attitude, the great Ron Perlman does his thing as Wepner’s grizzled trainer-manager, Al Braverman.

Chuck the film is too honest and bittersweet to indulge in phony triumphalism, but it is still a great deal of fun. If you have ever enjoyed any of the Rocky, Penitentiary, Best of the Best, or Karate Kid franchises, you really ought to check out Chuck, because it is the real deal. Thoroughly entertaining, Chuck opens this Friday (5/5) in New York, at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square uptown and the Regal Union Square downtown, following its American premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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