Chuck (IFC Films, R)

Its greatest gift is that it doesn’t try to make too much of his central character.

If you followed boxing in the 1970s, the name Chuck Wepner is undoubtedly familiar to you. Nicknamed “the Bayonne Bleeder,” Wepner was an everyman figure in the ring, noted for his toughness and ability to take a punch more than his mastery of the sweet science. Wepner’s greatest moment, without a doubt, was knocking down Muhammad Ali in their 1975 world championship heavyweight title fight. He paid dearly for that moment of glory, as from that point onwards Ali systematically battered his face until the referee called a TKO in the 15th round, indicating that in his judgment Wepner was no longer able to continue. Wepner, whose other exploits include bouts with professional wrestler Andre the Giant and Victor the Wrestling Bear, understood his strengths (showmanship) and limitations (boxing), and made the most of what he had to work with.  

Philippe Falardeau’s biopic Chuck focuses primarily on Wepner’s glory years, with brief forays back to his early life in Bayonne (presented as a place where fighting was simply part of life for boys) and forward to his current life in the same city. Its greatest gift is that it doesn’t try to make too much of his central character. While that may turn off viewers who want their biopic subjects to have worthy accomplishments, it’s entirely true to its subject, who would probably be the first to tell you that he is really nobody special. Chuck also offers a trip back in time to the years when boxing was a major sport, dominated by big personalities like Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, and people paid to watch fights in movie theaters and bars via closed circuit TV.

Liev Schrieber is convincing as Wepner, capturing both the physicality of a boxer’s life and the meat-headedness of his character. Elizabeth Moss does a lot with her limited role as Wepner’s second wife Phylliss. It’s never fun to be the only responsible adult in a relationship, and that role doesn’t make for great screen material compared to a character involved in blood-spattered fights and drug-fueled sex parties. Still, Moss creates a strong character that grounds the story in reality, reminding you that Wepner’s child-man act is lot less cute if you actually have to deal with the consequences. Michael Rapaport serves a similar purpose in a much smaller role as Wepner’s straight arrow brother, while Naomi Watts is outstanding in a small role as a bartender who was able to see past Wepner’s many faults.

Chuck doesn’t include as much boxing action as you might expect, while other staples of sports films, like the training montage, are nowhere to be found. That’s a clue that this is not so much a boxing movie as it is a portrait of someone who boxed, firmly situated in a specific time and place. Chuck Wepner is a type of guy you are likely to meet if you spend much time in Northern New Jersey, particularly if you venture outside the yuppified realms of Hoboken and the like. You might say that Chuck is to Bayonne as Norman is to New York City: not that either provides a complete portrait of an individual or a culture, but that each captures certain key aspects of a character type and his milieu.

Chuck opens with a quote attributed to “Rocky Balboa,” an entirely appropriate choice since Sylvester Stallone wrote the script for Rocky after watching Wepner’s fight against Ali (Stallone denied the connection but later settled a lawsuit brought by Wepner for an undisclosed amount). Falardeau includes numerous archival clips from contemporary boxing matches as well as classic films about boxing, all of which help create a richly inhabited world. Chuck was filmed in Bulgaria, but you’d never guess it thanks to excellent location scouting and production design, accompanied by strong period choices in costuming and hair design. | Sarah Boslaugh

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