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Review: Star’s acting is at heart of boxing film

  • VERDI PRODUCTIONS

    Miles Teller is Vinny Pazienza in “Bleed for This.”

“Bleed for This”

*** 1/2

(R, 1:56)

You’ve heard this one before: A promising young boxer overcomes an impossible obstacle to snag a shot at a championship match. That’s the gist of “Bleed for This,” but it happens to be based on a true story, and it turns out to be a decent boxing picture.

It’s also a compelling portrait of an ethnic working-class family that echoes the work of Martin Scorsese (the movie’s executive producer). “Bleed for This” writer-director Ben Younger (“Boiler Room”) isn’t on Scorsese’s level, but he efficiently immerses us in this far-from-genteel setting.

The film recounts the story of Vinny Pazienza, a Rhode Island fighter who broke his neck in a car accident and put himself through an unbelievably tortuous regimen so that he could get in the ring again, against doctor’s orders, and against all reason and common sense.

Vinny, played with ferocity by Miles Teller (“Whiplash”), is a tough kid from an Italian-American family in Providence. Nicknamed “the Pazmanian Devil,” he’s good, but likes to party, and early in the movie gets whupped by Roger Mayweather. Advised by his manager to hang it up, Vinny turns to a hard-drinking trainer (a very good Aaron Eckhart) who used to work with Mike Tyson.

His future looks good until the accident, which leaves him wearing a halo, a metal contraption that braces his neck using screws attached to his skull. Halo be damned — in a superhuman display of will, he begins training again, through extremes of pain. He persuades the Eckhart character to help, but tries to hide their efforts from his father (Ciaran Hinds, holding nothing back), a domineering roughneck who pushed his son to box but now is full of remorse.

This all works well on a visceral level. After his long ordeal, Vinny can’t even find a sparring partner — everyone’s afraid of injuring him. But his manager secures a big-money match: a 12-round bout in Las Vegas against Roberto Duran that’s touted as the “Duel in the Desert.” For Vinny, it’s life or death.

The depiction of Vinny’s family, including a mother (Katey Sagal) who retreats to a sanctuary full of religious images during his televised matches, is entertaining but doesn’t always avoid caricature.

Teller’s work is the film’s soul, and he completely convinces us of Vinny’s affability, flaws and steely determination. The performance has intelligent touches, some of them comic — such as the hint that Vinny’s rehab battle is heroic but also a bit goofy.

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