Rated: R for language throughout, drug use, sexuality/nudity and some bloody images. Reviewed by: Jim Release date: May 5, 2017 Released by: IFC Films
A solidly efficient boxing biopic from Quebec's Phillippe Falardeno stars Liev Schreiber (Spotlight, Salt, Goon, of a varied, distinguished career that includes Sphere and The Painted Veil) as mustached Chuck Wepner, a club pugilist who got his chance against Muhammad Ali in a 1975 heavyweight title fight that would serve as the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone writing the indelibly rousing underdog picture, Rocky.
Schreiber, who also produces (among many) and co-writes this labor of love with a pronounced lighter tone, is far from his brooding, suave small-screen titular character, Ray Donovan, in this incarnation from the mean streets of New Jersey where Wepner toiled as a liquor salesman when not known as 'The Bayonne Bleeder' ("The Bleeder" was the original moniker).
The vane voice-over and production recall 1970s Martin Scorsese as Wepner gets the chance against Ali (after 'The Rumble in the Jungle' with Chuck Foreman) from flamboyant promoter Don King in a 15-round battle that had Ali (Pooch Hall, also of Donovan) floored before finally pulverizing his opponent. But, really, Falardeno works effectively in strong period fashion with swift editing (not to languish at all) to make Wepner's familiar fall from grace but ultimate rise rather affecting. A lot of it, even post-Ali, isn't easy to absorb at times in the squalor of booze, dope and women.
Included in this arc that coincides with Hollywood stardom for Stallone is a stellar Elisabeth Moss (Listen Up Philip, The One I Love) as Wepner's spouse Phyllis who has enough as Ray doesn't show up for a Parents Day for their 2nd grade daughter. Ron Perlman is amusingly fun as the boxer's manager, Michael Rappaport decent as the estranged brother John, as well as Jim Gaffigan who makes Wepner's entry into reckless life easier. Not to mention an uncanny Morgan Spector as 'Sly' Stallone and Schreiber's off-screen missus Naomi Watts (chosen by him for the role with credits including St. Vincent and Birdman) as his real love-interest and barmaid, Linda.
The wild, hot-head of a loudmouth of Wepner was hardly the pious figure that Rocky Balboa endured to so many when it came to decency, family matters, and living vicariously through another before drug-trafficking propagated a reversal, as well as the impetus for Stallone's 1989 feature, Lock Up.
Wepner did blow a lot in his life, like a chance to appear in Rocky II, but Chuck still manages an emotional pull from the toll captured so well in Nicolas Bolduc's camerawork (as well as designs and costumes especially in a vintage 70s disco era) and Falardeno's way with an uncompromising Schreiber who persuasively immerses himself into a man who would finally bleed out rather well in a unanimous decision.