Bleed for This Is a Knock-Out

slidebleedOn November 18, Bleed for This will open on 2,500 screens nationwide. In anticipation, Open Road (the distributor) and Verdi Productions (the production company) staged a press screening/RI premiere on November 10. Stars of the film from both sides of the camera were in attendance, including Miles Teller (Vinny Paz); Aaron Eckhart (Paz trainer Kevin Rooney); writer/ director Ben Younger; RI actress Amanda Clayton (Paz’s sister Doreen Pazienza); producers Chad A. Verdi, Joshua Sason, Michele Verdi, Pamela Thur and Bruce Cohen; and the inspiration himself, Vinny Paz.

There was a special magic in watching the film in a theater packed with Rhode Islanders. If you’ve been in the state long enough, you’ve either met or heard of the boxer and his legendary career. Certainly, everyone in the theater knew the story and was eager to see it come to life. And the two-hour film inspired numerous laughs, as well as moans and gasps of empathy during the part of the story that focused on Vinny’s accident and early recovery.

This film is distinctly Rhode Island. I don’t just mean the accents – which are delightfully authentic – or the fact that everything was shot in RI, often in the actual locations where they happened over 20 years ago. But the spirit of the film shows its Rhode Island nature over and over. In one early scene, a rival boxer trash talks Vinny, threatening to “Beat your pizza-faced, Liberacedressing son back to Boston.” Vinny’s father, Angelo Pazienza, replies, insulted, “We’re from Providence!!

The story, referred to by producers as the greatest comeback in sports history, is touching and inspiring.

Younger described his fascination with a character who could say, “I don’t care if I can walk again, if I can’t box,” and that spirit is captured on the screen. The writing is crisp and often witty – a tone reminiscent of Younger’s cult hit Boiler Room. The overall tone is gritty and real. We don’t go into nasty salacious territory, but Paz’s appreciation for strip clubs and gambling is duly represented. Without apologies, it becomes another lovable eccentricity of a larger-than-life character. The cinematography and editing work well together, innovative and effective without taking you out of the movie.

But what really stands out are the performances. Every performer rises to the challenge, turning in performances that portray often over-thetop characters without ever seeming unrealistic or cartoonish. Miles Teller turns in a command performance, creating a devil-may-care Vinny Paz whose bombastic nature can also yield to thoughtful and introspective moments. Teller can hold the camera enthralled with a single, intense gaze from within his neck-bracing halo apparatus. Eckhart brings a vulnerability to “ready for pasture” trainer Kevin Rooney, also a dramatic and successful departure from his other work. I was worried that Paz’s story could veer into melodrama. It gets intense, but it never over indulges, often opting for expressive acting over dialog.

Both actors manage to completely inhabit their roles without seeming artificial. Teller prepared by listening to countless hours of Vinny interviews on YouTube and imitating the voice and attitude. “He still comes out once in a while,” Teller, who did all his own fight scenes without a double, told Motif. “Vinny is still in there.” When he asked Vinny how he did it – enduring the halo non-stop for months. Teller was told, “Suck it up, twatcakes.” His other advice from Paz: a note before shooting a scene in which Paz is in his underwear. The note said, “Miles, stuff a banana in your undies if you have to make it look bigger. You have to protect my reputation. Seriously. Much love, Paz.”

“You are a warrior,” Teller told Paz on stage. “I feel like I could do anything after playing you.”

It’s a little grueling watching Vinny begin to recover from his accident, and subsequently wage an internal war between depression, denial and hope. But the film manages to be touching without losing momentum. The medical scenes are particularly effective, producing a mix of wincing fascination. It will be interesting to see what the rest of the country makes of this distinctly Rhode Island story. “Rhode Island is such a character in this movie,” Eckhart acknowledges, “And such a part of Vinny’s life. I don’t think this movie could have been made anywhere else,” said Younger at the post-screening Q & A, “and I don’t know if this story could have happened anywhere else. The RI fans and crowds and the personality of the Rhode Island community really supported Vinny.” Younger visited RI and hung out here while working on the script.

When asked what it was like to see his story unfold, Vinny said, “I can’t imagine a better cast or script. These actors did such an amazing job. My only regret is that my ma and pop aren’t around to see it. They would have loved this.” So if you want to relive the ’80s; if you want a solid boxing film; if you want a story about persistence, courage and the bonds formed by boxing; or if you just want to immerse yourself in a retelling of the Vinny Paz story, Bleed for This will deliver.

 

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