Chuck (2017)


Liev Schreiber gets ready to take on the role of Chuck Wepner.

(2017) Sports Biography (IFC) Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Michael Rapaport, Jim Gaffigan, Pooch Hall, Jason Jones, Morgan Spector, Sadie Sink, Zina Wilde, Catherine Corcoran, Wass Stevens, Angela Marie Ray, Liz Celeste, Ivan Martin, Joe Starr, Jen Ponton, William Hill, Mark Borkowski, Marell Miniutti, Leslie Lyles, Megan Sikora. Directed by Phillippe Falardeau

 

America loves an underdog and perhaps there’s been no bigger underdog in U.S. boxing history than Chuck Wepner. A journeyman heavyweight in the 1970s based in Bayonne, New Jersey, he’d had a decent enough career, winning the Jersey State Heavyweight Championship but had never really fought any of the big dogs of the era – until 1975.

Wepner (Schreiber) has a certain amount of local fame as he is treated like he’d won the heavyweight championship of the world. Of course, admiration doesn’t put food on the table so he runs a liquor route to make ends meet. His wife Phyliss (Moss) endures the boxing in which he takes terrible beatings but Chuck tends to have a wandering eye – and the other body parts unfortunately wander as well. The marriage is most definitely sailing through rough waters and while Chuck is devoted to his daughter Kimberly (Sink) his ego tends to get in the way of making smart choices.

After Ali (Hall) wins the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman, his manager Don King invites Wepner to fight for the championship against Ali, then just a little past his prime. The match is expected to be a joke but Wepner gives Ali everything he can handle, coming just 18 seconds away from going the distance until Ali, angered that Wepner had knocked him down, pummeled him into a technical knockout. Still, Wepner became a folk hero.

A young out-of-work actor named Sylvester Stallone (Spector) sees the fight and is inspired to write a character based on Wepner – Stallone names him Rocky Balboa. The rest is history and although Wepner has nothing to do with the movie itself, he feels a sense of accomplishment when the movie wins multiple Oscars as if he had been responsible. He starts billing himself as “The Real Rocky.”

But all the accolades and adulation get Chuck’s ego spiraling out of control and he spends the Disco Decade in debauchery, doing drugs, drinking heavily and partying with women. Having had enough, Phyliss leaves him for good and Chuck sinks into a deep depression fueled by drugs and alcohol. Standing by him is his estranged brother John (Rapaport), his best friend (Gaffigan), his longtime manager (Perlman) and a barmaid named Linda (Watts) who is unimpressed with Chuck’s fame. Will it be enough to get him back on the straight and narrow?

Because the stories are so similar, the first part of the film comes off as kind of a Rocky Lite which may or may not be what the filmmakers intended. Then, in a sense, it all goes off the rails as Wepner gets lost in the trappings of fame, 70s style – discos, tons of drugs, tons of sex. It turns into a cautionary tale at that point which is diametrically different to the underdog story that it began as.

One of the things that really caught my attention is that Falardeau accomplishes either digitally or by using film stock the look of era movies which helps keep you right in the 70s. The trappings of the time – the truly obnoxious hair, the boxy cars, the outlandish clothes and the pulse of disco – further set the tone.

Schreiber of late has gotten notoriety for playing the Hollywood fixer Ray Donovan on Showtime and I can’t help but notice that while both Donovan and Wepner are violent men, Donovan is clever and street smart while Wepner is easily swayed by praise. Wepner has an ego which makes some sense since he came from a background in which his ego along with his body took a pounding. When everybody loves you, it’s hard not to love yourself.

While there is some humor to the movie it falls flat in that regard a little more often than I would have liked. The humor is a bit heavy-handed and the movie would have benefited from a lighter tone overall. As for the story, some of you might be aware of Wepner’s history but most people won’t; still, the story is a bit predictable even though it is based on Wepner’s life. Hollywood has had lots of Wepners in its history.

As boxing movies go, this one isn’t going to make any grand changes to the genre but it doesn’t disgrace itself either. It’s entertaining enough and for those who are wary of the big summer blockbusters that are taking up most of the screens in the local multiplex, this makes a very entertaining counter option.

REASONS TO GO: The movie was shot to look like it was filmed in the 70s which enhances the sense of era.  Schreiber is appealing as Wepner in a Ray Donovan-esque way.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmaker needed a lighter touch here. Overall the film is inoffensive but predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, plenty of drug use, some sexuality and nudity, a lot of boxing violence and a few bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled The Bleeder in reference to Wepner’s boxing nickname “The Bayonne Bleeder.” Wepner claims the title changed due to it sounding like a horror film but it is also well-known that he detested the nickname.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ali
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Power Rangers

Tyson


Tyson

The champ is still as intimidating as ever.

(Sony Classics) Mike Tyson, Cus D’Amato, Michael Spinks, Evander Holyfield, Don King, Robin Douglas, Desiree Washington, James “Buster” Douglas. Directed by James Toback

Iron Mike Tyson is a figure that polarizes sports fans around the globe. Some see him as an astonishing ferocious fighter, one who managed to elevate himself from poverty and crime in his native Brooklyn and rise to the highest strata in professional sports. Others see him as little more than an animal, one who abuses and rapes women and bites the ears of fighters in the ring. But how does the former champion see himself?

Filmmaker James Toback, who’s been friends with Tyson since Tyson was a teenager, decided to find out and to do that he turned the camera on the former heavyweight champion and shot nearly 30 hours of interview footage. The understanding was that no subject would be off-limits including the more painful items, and that Tyson would have no say in how the film was edited. That Tyson agreed to those conditions illustrates the trust he has in Toback and also the willingness to bare his soul in front of the world.

The movie more or less follows Tyson’s career chronologically, from his start as a juvenile delinquent in Brooklyn, one of the roughest neighborhoods on earth through his lean, hungry days as an aspiring boxer through his days at the pinnacle of championship boxing to the end of his fighting career.

There is no pretense of objectivity here. We are hearing Tyson’s voice exclusively. However, the case against the champ is pretty well-documented and most of the accusations are addressed to some degree. He is surprisingly candid about things, admitting to treating women contemptibly but denying the highly publicized rape charges brought against him by beauty pageant contestant Desiree Washington, whom he refers to as a “swine.” He would serve prison time for that.

He also talks reverently about Cus D’Amato, the legendary boxing trainer who saw something in Tyson and taught him not just how to fight, but how to win. When discussing D’Amato’s passing, Tyson gets unexpectedly emotional. He credits D’Amato with essentially his entire success; for good or bad, you can blame Tyson on D’Amato. The trainer passed away a year before Tyson would win his first championship.

There is a lot of archival footage from Tyson’s boxing matches, but wisely Tyson doesn’t dwell so much on those. Certainly there is some discussion about the significance of the various fights, but they are generally used to illustrate Tyson’s state of mind at the time, and occasionally some of the techniques he used to prepare for the fights.

Mostly this is about Mike Tyson the man and less about Mike Tyson the boxer. However, since boxing is so integral a part of him, you must look at Mike Tyson the boxer to understand Mike Tyson the man.

I will admit to not having a high opinion of Tyson before I saw this. Yes, he is an impressive fighter and a powerful puncher but then again so is a jackhammer. However, seeing the man talk so honestly and unflinchingly about the mistakes he’s made gave me a newfound respect for the man. His courage isn’t merely physical.

I didn’t leave the movie thinking Mike Tyson is a misunderstood saint, but I did leave with a different opinion of him. Perhaps even a touch of understanding. Mike Tyson’s journey has been a more difficult one than most, but he has overcome things you and I will never even begin to comprehend. He went from being a frightened, bullied little boy into a ferocious, terrifying man, the self-proclaimed Baddest Man on Earth, a title which he richly deserved at the time. These days, he is trying to overcome a drug habit and has settled down to be a doting father (although he is divorced from the mother of his son, they are on good terms). He has mellowed somewhat, but still inside the man is the fighter, and he fights with the heart and skill of a champion.

WHY RENT THIS: Considering that you’re only essentially hearing one voice, this is a fascinating look at one of the most controversial figures in sports.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It is essentially mostly Tyson talking about his life; there’s some archival footage in it but you’re really only getting one viewpoint, albeit a surprisingly honest one.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is definitely rough, with some crude sexual references. There is also extensive footage of Tyson’s boxing matches so those who object to that sort of violence should be warned.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The documentary only received one distribution offer, that from Sony Classics. When screened at the Cannes Film Festival, the film received a ten-minute standing ovation in front of many of the executives who had originally passed on it.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Nothing listed.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Alice in Wonderland (2010)