Just as a promising prize fighter's career is taking off, his neck is broken in a near-fatal car accident – but will his physical rehabilitation allow him to return to the ring?
In November of 1988, Vinny Pazienza (Teller) loses his third straight fight and promoters think prospects for any future bouts are so dim they encourage him to retire. Feeling he still has more boxing left, Vinny ignores them and instead hires Kevin (Eckhart) as his new trainer. At this stage in their lives, they are made for each other; they are both seen as being washed-up – in Kevin’s case, his professional decline stems from alcohol abuse. But both men feel as though they have something to prove to the world, so they engage in their new business relationship with a renewed sense of purpose.
During th training sessions, Kevin notices Vinny is punching better when he maintains a higher weight, so he suggests that in his next fight, Vinny jump two weight classes; this is fine with Vinny, who always had a tremendous amount of trouble making the weight for his previous matches. When his next fight is scheduled, it turns out to be for a title at the higher weight class; Vinny wins and now owns a championship belt. With his boxing career now revived, Vinny is sitting on top of the world – but his celebration is short-lived when he winds up in a serious automobile accident that partially severs his spine.
In the hospital, Vinny’s doctor encourages him to have spinal fusion surgery, but he opts for the other alternative: attach a halo to stabilize his neck. The device will have to remain intact for a period of six months – and after that, there’s no guarantee Vinny will ever walk again, so his boxing career, is effectively over. Vinny disregards this; he asks Kevin to start training him again as part of his rehabilitation. Once the halo is removed, Vinny resumes normal training for a return to the boxing ring; since this makes the news, promoters are easily able to secure yet another fight – but while Vinny is focused on winning, the real question is will he even survive?
Boxing fans will easily recognize the names here, but for those unfamiliar with the sport, it should be noted that this is based on a true story. Given that, the screenplay is helped significantly by having a natural structure. Despite this advantage, the film is somewhat self-defeating because of the way the story is laid out. It lacks a visual timeline; we start in late 1988 and sequential events happen but we don’t know how far afterwards they occurred; this directly impacts on the end of the movie because we can’t quite know exactly how long it took him from the time of his accident until the time when he got back in the ring.
We know the halo removal came six months after the accident, but how long was the accident after Vinny won the belt? How long after the accident did he fight Duran? If you’re a fight devotee, you probably already know the history. However, for an audience new to this story, there’s a feeling something is missing. Also, the end is problematic; it’s an interview where Vinny is supposedly saying something profound, but it simply falls flat. There is no epilogue at the end of the movie; perhaps this is done because it’s become trite. Ironically, this is one of those movies that actually would benefit from an epilogue because the viewer is left hanging as to what happened to Vinny afterwards.
If there are any bright spots in “Bleed For This”, it is the performances by Teller and Eckhart. For one thing, Teller did an extraordinary job of sculpting his physique into that of a boxer in such a way that it is somewhat vaguely reminiscent of what De Niro did in “Raging Bull” (perhaps it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that one of the film’s executive producers was Martin Scorsese). As for Eckhart, he is unrecognizable as the trainer; he completely disappears into that role and you often forget who the actor is, which is quite a remarkable feat.