By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
Most people know about the movie Rocky, but not all of these same people know that the first Rocky film was inspired by a real boxer and his lucky shot at the heavyweight title. The new film by Canadian film director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar), tells the true story about Chuck Wepner, the Bayonne, New Jersey-based boxer who struck gold in 1975 when he and his manager scored a once-in-a-lifetime fight versus heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. The appropriately and simply titled Chuck not only recounts some of the events that led to this life-changing match, but also reveals the ugly aftermath as Wepler becomes a living cliche and falls victim to the excesses and hubris of moderate fame.
Liev Schreiber stars as Chuck Wepler, a decent small-time boxer infamously known as the “Bayonne Bleeder.” During the sixties and seventies, Wepler juggled a boxing career with a job as a liquor salesman and with being a husband and father. Working with manager/trainer Al Braverman (Ron Perlman) helps Wepler’s boxing career and he eventually scores the fight which will forever change his life. Wepler actually proves himself as worthy of stepping in the ring with Ali, but fails to win the fight. A year after the fight, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky hits theaters and the Wepler-inspired film gives the retired boxer a new lease on fame which eventually becomes his downfall, as he becomes addicted to cocaine and the wild life style that often comes with it.
With writing by Jeff Feurerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Cristofer, and Liev Schreiber, director Phillippe Falardeau has made a fascinating and compelling film with Chuck, but one that has a story that is all too familiar. Unfortunately, Chuck‘s story is one of many where hard work leads to fame and success, and the spoils of that success lead to the protagonist’s downfall. Nevertheless, the writers and director have made movie worth watching, especially for Rocky fans and fans of boxing who are strangely unfamiliar with Wepler’s story. Despite the built-in drawbacks of the story, the writing is solid and sharp with an even-tempered satirical wit. In addition to good writing and great direction, the filmmakers can boast excellent performances by the entire cast.
Besides the actors mentioned above, Chuck stars Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Jim Gaffigan, Michael Rapaport, Pooch Hall, and Morgan Spector. Elisabeth Moss delivers a stellar performance as Chuck’s first wife Phyllis, a strong, loving and supportive woman who puts up with Chuck’s weaknesses and misbehavior, but has to step away from the marriage when his antics have a negative influence on their daughter. Naomi Watts is nearly unrecognizable and does an amazing job as Chuck’s love interest and eventual second wife Linda. Watts portrays Linda with a non-nonsense, brassy attitude which is just what he needs in his life. Ron Perlman is perfectly cast as the tough-loving, ball-breaker of a trainer/manager, Al Braverman. Jim Gaffigan also performs well in a mostly, non-comedic role as Chuck’s best friend John Stoehr. As Chuck, Liev Schreiber is absolutely impeccable. He has the attitude, charm and accent down perfectly and not only makes for a captivating protagonist, but also serves as an exceptional narrator to the story.
And because Wepler’s story is a fascinating and curious one, and because the director and cast have done some great work in bringing it to life, I do highly recommend this film as a great matinee or an awesome future movie rental. Though this type of story has been told many times prior to this film, this little movie still has some first-rate things going for it. The exceptional performances by the cast alone make this a boxing movie not to miss.