Starring: Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Ron Pearlman, Niomi Watts and Michael Rapaport
Written by: Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Cristofer and Liev Schreiber
Directed by: Philippe Falardeau
Running Time: 1hr 38mins
What good was backing up gonna do? Look, my thing was this: I couldn’t hit him, so I figured I’d wear him down with my face. It was working great for five or six rounds… – Chuck Wepner
“I think what’s at the heart of Chuck’s story is the awareness of the fact that what keeps us on track are those that are nearest and dearest to us, and how important it is to maintain those relationships and focus our energies on those relationships.” – Liev Schrieber – CNN Entertainment
Most people are familiar with the nine movies that make up the ROCKY franchise. There are the six original films, as well as the more recent three that fall under the CREED banner. Then there’s the one that so many viewers are unaware of. It’s technically not a film in the franchise, but in my opinion, it belongs in the conversation with the rest. CHUCK, starring Liev Schreiber and directed by Philippe Falardeau, takes its story from the life of Chuck Wepner, the underdog boxer who famously went nearly 15 rounds with the legendary Muhammad Ali, even knocking him down in the 9th. This fight inspired a young Sylvester Stallone to write the original script to the classic John G. Avildsen film ROCKY. CHUCK is a small independent film that tells the true story of not only the fight but Wepner’s life after the movie ROCKY was released. It’s a film that, like its counterpart, surprises because of how good it is. It thrives because of a strong performance by Schreiber and benefits from a first-rate script that is filled with rich characters that all feel genuine to the people they portray and the story they inhabit.
On March 25, 1975, an underdog named Chuck Wepner, nicknamed “The Bayonne Bleeder” because he was a man who could take a punch better than most, found himself in the position of stepping into the ring with one of the greatest boxers of all time, Muhammad Ali. Similar to the mindset of Rocky Balboa in his first film, Wepner’s main goal was just to go the distance and though many thought the fight wouldn’t last long, it went almost the full fifteen rounds. The referee awarded Ali a technical knockout with only 19 seconds left. Without this fight, there would have been no ROCKY.
Storywise, the script by Jeff Feurseig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Cristofer and Live Schreiber is more interesting than I expected. It stays away from the trappings of so many sports films that came before it. Whereas with most boxing movies, the big fight would be the set piece that everything leads up to, here, it’s just the beginning. It makes its appearance at only thirty minutes in and acts as a starting point to the real story rather than the climax. Wepner’s personal story is more interesting than a means to get to the boxing match and the filmmakers understand this. CHUCK is a film about a man. We see his life both before and after the big fight. The story centers itself around the effect that the movie ROCKY has on Wepner, which he could have benefitted greatly from, yet doesn’t. At one point, he meets Stallone, played by Morgan Spector, and is given the opportunity to be a part of ROCKY II. Wepner is not a smart guy, though, and makes a lot of bad choices and his life isn’t exactly what he hoped it would be. This is a story about the rise, struggles, self-destruction and, most importantly, redemption of Wepner.
Falardeau does a great job giving a 70’s feel to the film. Working well with cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc, production designer Inbal Weinberg and costume designer Vicki Farrell, they effectively replicate the era in which the movie takes place, transporting the viewer right into the 70s. Ultimately the look of the film works so well because, though made in 2016, Falardeau is able to successfully duplicate the feel and tone of a movie that would have been made in the 70s, helping it to become a perfect companion piece to the earlier ROCKY films.
Liev Schreiber is an under-appreciated actor who is good in almost everything he does. Here he’s especially great as he plays Wepner in a very understated and low-key manner. The character could have very easily worked as over-the-top, but like the movie itself, Schreiber keeps the character grounded in reality. Wepner is a man who becomes proud of his newfound fame but ultimately doesn’t know how to benefit from it. We not only witness his success in the ring but get the pieces in his life that represent his failures as both a husband and father. Because of Schreiber’s strong emotional performance, we sympathize with Wepner while also understanding how his life turns against him and becomes more of a tragedy throughout most of the story.
The supporting cast all give strong performances as well. Elisabeth Moss is sympathetic as Wepner’s wife, Phyllis, a woman who is as tough as Wepner himself. She loves him deeply and struggles to put up with his cheating ways while coming to terms with how to handle her own life choices. Naomi Watts is especially good as Linda, the firecracker of a woman who eventually changes Wepner and allows him to see his true self. The standout though is Michael Rapaport, who gives the best performance of his career. I think it’s fair to say that even though he’s in only two scenes, if the movie had been a little better known his name would have been more present come awards time. Rapaport plays Wepner’s estranged brother, Don, who is torn between how proud he is of Wepner’s boxing accomplishments while also being ashamed of the man his brother has become. Rapaport is really great at presenting this conflict within Don’s mind in both the way he speaks and carries himself.
How a movie about the fight that inspired one of the most successful movie franchises of all time could fall so far under the radar is hard for me to understand. When it comes right down to it, this is a truly special addition to the ROCKY/CREED franchise, even if the film isn’t officially part of it. Wepner is a very different character than the naive and soft-hearted Rocky Balboa and it would seem that the only real inspiration that he had on the Rocky franchise is the fight against Ali. Still, fans of the franchise will find themselves falling in love with Wepner and hopefully, this film will one day become an important part of the ROCKY/CREED conversation.
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