"Chuck" is the boxing film you need in your life this weekend and let me tell you why: it stars a never better Liev Schreiber in the title role, spins a good timely tale about redemption, and reveals the inspiration behind Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky".
That's right, the Bayonne Bleeder — Chuck Wepner — was the soil that Rocky was grown from. It makes for a charmingly honest movie that is worth your money and will make you smile at the man's imperfections. It's not your run-of-the-mill, punch-drunk boxing tale. This story still has most of its teeth and good bite.
Wepner's colorful life creates a good basis for director Philippe Falardeau's movie to work with, and the script (co-written by Schreiber as well as Jeff Feuerzeig and Jerry Stall) doesn't hold back from showing you what the "real Rocky" was all about. Wepner was a respectable boxer who fought Muhammad Ali for the belt back on March of 1975, and the fight ended up doing more harm to Wepner than good.
When Wepner nearly went the distance with the greatest in the world, Stallone created "Rocky", but the high-profile match sped up the runaway train that Wepner was already driving off track. If he wasn't cheating on his wife, he was snorting cocaine. If he wasn't doing one of those, he was drinking too much vodka. If there was a right thing to do, Chuck did the opposite, and it wasn't until he met Laura (played by his real life ex, Naomi Watts) that his life found some steadiness. There was no Adrian and miraculous wins over Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang or Ivan Drago. The toughest fights in Wepner's life were against his own demons and bad habits outside of the ring.
The honesty with this film is the key to its success, and Schreiber is a wicked revelation as Wepner, a man who punched himself harder than anybody else ever could. The seasoned actor usually shows up as the third or fourth guy in his films, but for once in his career, Schreiber is the main guy-and he doesn't waste the opportunity. He digs into the persona of a man who keeps touching a hot stove and shows us the depravity of a well meaning native son of Jersey. Wepner had a good wife in Phyliss (a potent Elizabeth Moss) and a daughter, but he made bad choices due a reliance on fame.
Wepner may have called himself Champ, but he never won a World title and his 35-14-2 record won't put him near the Hall of Fame. With this guy, it was the down on his luck story leading to a connection with Stallone's famous palooka that creates all the juice required for the film to work.
There's a self-deprecation in the way it is told that also helps the movie slip and move around its 98 minute running time. Movie audiences have been served dozens of boxing tales in all shapes and sizes, but how many people know the real life inspiration behind cinema's most famous boxer? Before I saw the trailer for the film, I had no idea who Chuck Wepner was. Now, I'm fascinated by him. I wish I could buy the guy a beer and hear some of his stories.
Chuck Wepner is a very interesting guy who lived a wildly ambitious life, and that is what makes the movie work. If the main character is unique and the actor leans into it, the finished product will be worth the price of admission.
A great cast is always a good thing, especially actors that are made for the roles they are given. Michael Rapaport makes a dent as Wepner's brother, even if the actor only has two scenes. It's great to see Ron Perlman ham it up as Wepner's trainer, Al Braverman. Schreiber's Ray Donovan cast mate, Pooch Hall, does a great Ali impersonation, and Jim Gaffigan gets to stretch a bit as Wepner's best friend, John. Moss cuts the deepest as the scorned first wife, but seeing Schreiber and Watts act together is bittersweet.
And you'll get a kick out of Morgan Spector's dead-on portrayal of Stallone. I loved the way Lock Up is worked into this boxing tale. Kudos to Spector for giving the role something extra.
The filmmakers wisely incorporate real footage of Wepner's life, and the real life subject consulted on the film as well, adding an extra shot of cinematic espresso to the already hard boiled tale. Chuck's story is one that should inspire many to remember that healing can come in the form of a woman's love as much as a fight won. There's true value in its honesty, and that transcends easily on the big screen.
If you loved Rocky, you'll find Chuck quite lovable. He's a classic redemption story with a side of charm. Thanks to Liev Schreiber giving until it was gone, Chuck is one of the best movies I've seen in 2017.
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