Chuck (2016)

  • Time: 101 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama | Sport
  • Director: Philippe Falardeau
  • Cast: Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Elisabeth Moss


Chuck Wepner, the “Bayonne Bleeder,” he was the pride of Bayonne, New Jersey, a man who went fifteen rounds in the ring with Muhammad Ali, and the real life inspiration for Rocky Balboa. But before all that, Chuck Wepner was a liquor salesman and father with a modest prizefighting career whose life changed overnight when, in 1975, he was chosen to take on The Greatest in a highly publicized title match. It’s the beginning of a wild ride through the exhilarating highs and humbling lows of sudden fame-but what happens when your fifteen minutes in the spotlight are up?

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  • “You don’t know me. Well, you don’t know you know me,” says Chuck Wepner at the start of Chuck (originally titled The Bleeder). Indeed, whilst boxing aficionados may know Chuck as “The Bayonne Bleeder” who went a full 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali and lived to tell about it, the average Joe might unknowingly be aware of him as the real-life inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa.

    Like Rocky, Chuck is a lovable working-class underdog though, unlike his fictional counterpart, his story is less rags to riches than rags to better rags. Quickly tracking his childhood in Bayonne, New Jersey where “you can’t help but grow up fighting,” to his moderately successful boxing career, the filmmakers establish Chuck’s prowess in the ring by ironically mimicking the famous photo of Ali towering over a crumpled Sonny Liston. It’s immediately clear that Chuck is no Ali – where Ali dances, Chuck lumbers; where Ali knows he’s the greatest of all time, Chuck is highly aware that he’s just a guy who can take a punch. He’s also a guy who needs to support his postal worker wife Phyllis (Elisabeth Moss) and their daughter, which he does by working as a liquor salesman (“I was too nice to be a debt collector.”).

    When his trainer-manager Al Braverman (Ron Perlman) tells him he has a title shot against George Foreman after Foreman’s fight with Ali, he’s ecstatic though his disappointment is great when Ali ends up defeating Foreman during their famous Rumble in the Jungle. “I was almost the heavyweight champion of the world,” he mouths along to Anthony Quinn’s washed-up boxer in the 1962 film, Requiem for a Heavyweight (in which the real-life Ali appeared). Yet he can’t believe his own dumb luck when Don King chooses him to be Ali’s next opponent since he’s the only white guy of note in the same weight class and King is determined to make the fight about race. Naturally, everyone expects the fight to be a walk in the park for Ali (one reporter calls it “a fight between an artist and a house painter”); when Chuck manages to withstand Ali’s punches for 15 rounds, he becomes even more of a local celebrity and, with his ego growing by the second, he stupidly succumbs to alcohol, drugs, and women.

    Though Chuck’s tsuris could have easily taken Chuck into Raging Bull territory, director Philippe Falardeau and screenwriters Jeff Feuerzeig and Jerry Stahl keep the sturm und drang at bay, preferring the drama to be low-key. Which is not to say that Chuck doesn’t effectively paint a portrait of a man who was too busy trying to be someone else that he never understood that he was liked for being himself or that Chuck’s destiny as a footnote doesn’t pluck at the heartstrings. Chuck doesn’t pretend to be anything more than what it is and that unpretentiousness and unsentimentality are what makes it so effective as both a boxing drama and a biopic.

    Liev Schreiber is nothing less than excellent as Chuck, perfectly conveying both the hubris and humility. Moss is fiery as the endlessly put-upon Phyllis, while Naomi Watts brings a sexy sparkiness to her role as the ball-busting Linda, who would eventually become Chuck’s third wife. Morgan Spector sounds eerily like the real-life Stallone, though he looks more like Frank than Sly. On the other side of the camera, cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc, production designer Inbal Weinberg and costume designer Vicki Farrell create a funky and appropriately gaudy Seventies wonderland.

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