Former heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner is not a name that may ring bells for many people. Chances are good though that you have heard about at least one of the two achievements he takes great pride in. The first of which was the fact that he lasted 15 rounds against boxing legend Muhammad Ali, even knocking the champ down at one point in the 7th round. As thrilling as going toe-to-toe with the champ was, it could be argued that Wepner found equal joy, if not more, in the fact that he was the inspiration for the iconic film Rocky.
Chuck, the latest work from award-winning Canadian filmmaker Philippe Falardeau, explores the point in the fighter’s career when his two crowning moments occurred. The pride of Bayonne, New Jersey, Wepner (Liev Schreiber) was the king of the local boxing circuit. Called the “Bayonne Bleeder,” a nickname he despised, Wepner was known both for his ability to take a punch and for bleeding profusely during each match.
Along with his boxing prowess, Wepner also had a reputation for being a womanizer; which obviously did not sit well with his wife Phyliss (Elisabeth Moss).
Rather than make a standard boxing film, though the recreation of the Wepner and Ali (Pooch Hall) fight is a delight, Falardeau paints an engaging character study of a man blinded by his own desire for fame. A star in his own mind, Wepner’s frequent adultery and drug use not only cost him his marriage, but also damaged his relationship with his daughter.
The film does not glorify Wepner’s many troubles, but uses them to emphasize how far off the track Wepner’s life veered. This theme is effectively hit home in one of Chuck’s most potent moments when Wepner’s bravado is striped bare as he struggles during an audition for Rocky II opposite Sylvester Stallone (Morgan Spector).
Wepner, a performer of sorts when trying to impress those in his hometown, cannot maintain the persona when he needs to most.
Capturing the feel of the 70s without relying on the aesthetics as a crutch, Falardeau constructs a film that is more entertaining than its rocky opening moments would lead you to believe. Once the film finds its groove by the mid-point, one cannot help but be caught up in Wepner’s plight.
A passion project for Schreiber, the actor brings the perfect mixture of heart, humour and sadness to the role. It also helps that Schreiber is backed by his strong supporting cast. Moss is effective, though a bit underused, as Phyliss; while Jim Gaffigan and Naomi Watts provide solid turns as Wepner’s best friend and potential love interest respectively. It should also be noted that Morgan Spector is sensational in his brief work as Sylvester Stallone. Instead of doing a straight caricature of the actor, Spector portrays him as an artist who genuinely has affection for Wepner and wants to see him succeed in life.
By the end one cannot help but feel the same for Wepner as well. Chuck does not go for the quick knockout, but keeps us on the ropes before hitting us with an entertaining uppercut.