Bleed for This
Vinny Pazienza is a boxer. It's all he knows.
He's not bad at it, either. He won a world lightweight belt, thanks to some good ring movement and his ability to take a hit.
But boxing's a hard way to make a living. To make weight before a fight, he rides an exercise bike while mummified in Saran Wrap. The punishment he endures in the ring can be excruciating: He's often rushed to the hospital afterward. Even his own manager, Lou Duva, thinks it's time for Vinny to hang up his gloves.
"I got more in me," Vinny protests.
"That's not the problem," Lou tells him. "You always got more."
But Lou relents, sending Vinny to trainer Kevin Rooney, the same guy who coached Mike Tyson to a world heavyweight championship. But Kevin's been spending more of his time in bars than boxing rings lately. A has-been fighter with a drunk trainer? Kevin figures that Lou's putting both of them gently out to pasture.
But neither of them is ready for that pasture just yet.
Kevin encourages Vinny to become a middleweight, leapfrogging a weight class to do so. It pays off when Vinny beats down a junior middleweight champion, Gilbert Dele, to take home another boxing belt. Retire? Vinny thinks he's just getting started.
Then one chilly fall morning, Vinny and his future brother-in-law climb into a Camaro for a drive. Without warning, a car swerves into their lane and hits them head-on. Vinnie's brother-in-law is shaken and bleeding, but fine. Vinny isn't. He's rushed to the hospital, unconscious.
He has a broken neck.
When he comes to, Vinny's first question to the doctor is predictable: "How much time 'til I can fight again?"
"I can't say with any certainty you're going to walk again," the doctor says.
But Vinny Pazienza is a boxer. It's all he knows.
And he certainly doesn't know how to quit.
After the accident, Vinny works hard to get back into the ring. And while we can (and will) question that decision and Vinny's accelerated timetable for doing so, we can't demean the man's courage or commitment to the sport he loves. That said, Vinny's desire to return to boxing puts those around him in some difficult positions.
When Kevin realizes Vinny's training again—even while he's still wearing a metal halo to stabilize his broken neck—Kevin initially refuses to help and tries to get Vinny to stop. But when Kevin realizes Vinny won't quit, the trainer agrees to get him back into fighting form.
Vinny's dad, Angelo, can't offer the same unconditional support to his son. Though he's been a part of Vinny's corner team throughout his son's career, Angelo says he literally can't be in his corner anymore, not when a return to boxing could endanger Vinny's life. "I should've done it a long time ago," he says of his decision.
Though these two key people make very different decisions, they both reflect a desire to do what they think is best: Kevin shows his love of Vinny by supporting him; Pops shows his by pushing back on Vinny's choice. Both responses, I think, have merit.
Vinny's mother, Louise, is a deeply devout Catholic, and spends all of her son's fights sequestered in a makeshift prayer closet surrounded by Catholic candles and crucifixes, as well as pictures of Jesus, Mary and various saints. She clutches her Rosary in times of crisis. When Vinny recovers consciousness after the car crash, she utters a sincere "thank God" at his bedside.
The Pazienza family home is also festooned with religious iconography, and Angelo wears a cross around his neck. His commitment to the faith, however, seems questionable.
After a big win, Vinny and his team (including his father) celebrate by going to a strip club. Several woman dance and writhe (sometimes with Vinny or members of his posse) in various stages of undress. We see exposed breasts and thong-clad posteriors. Men hoot and ogle.
Vinny has relationships with three different women during the film, with at least two of them being overtly sexual. The first woman is with him for a fight in Las Vegas: After a big night of gambling, the woman lies on a bed, topless, while Vinny showers her with poker chips. The two make out.
He's with a different woman at the time of his car crash. Though Vinny's still in a halo, she straddles him as the two try to kiss, a moment terminated when the woman complains that the halo is mussing her hair. Vinny suggests that they don't need to kiss to get physical, but she storms out anyway. We later see Vinny alone in a strip club—again filled with topless women—enjoying the view.
Months later, Vinny brings home yet another pretty brunette. When someone in the family asks her if she's bothered by Vinny's still-attached halo, she admits that the contraption kind of turns her on. "It's like braces times a thousand," she says.
Vinny shows up at a weigh-in (where fighters strip down to their skivvies to stand on a scale) wearing a leopard-print thong: He ribs his opponent about his (actually non-existent) interest in his nether-regions. Kevin does a suggestive crotch-grabbing dance in front of Vinny, encouraging him to go out on the town. Scantily clad women prance around the boxing ring announcing round numbers. Others wear revealing dresses.
Obviously, any movie about boxing will include some in-ring violence. Vinny and his opponents trade plenty of jaw-jarring blows, some of which send fighters to the canvas. Vinny's face is a mass of swollen cuts and bruises during some fights; his corner crew works feverishly to patch up the damage between rounds. As Vinny prepares to fight Dele, we see news footage of that boxer's last opponent—a guy being carried out of the ring face-down on a stretcher. (A reporter says the injured boxer's jaw had been broken.)
But in this movie—fittingly titled Bleed for This—the physical pain we see outside the ring is every bit as wince-inducing. The car crash is particularly unnerving. We see the actual impact from above, the two cars smashing into each other and spinning off the road. Vinnie's future brother-in-law staggers out of the wrecked vehicle, bloodied and shaken. Vinnie is far worse off: The passenger window has been smashed, and Vinnie leans against the door, his bloodied, almost blackened head resting where the window used to be.
Doctors install Vinny's halo by screwing stabilizing rods into his head and attaching them to what a doctor later describes as a "medieval" contraption to immobilize his neck. Audiences see the doctors screw the bolts in, points burrowing into the skin. And while Vinny's unconscious for the surgery, he refuses anesthetic six months later when it's time to remove the halo. It's an incredibly painful procedure: Vinny screams in pain, breaks a chair handle and shouts, "Lefty loosey!" certain the doctor must be twisting the bolts in instead of taking them out. The doctor assures him he understands which way to turn the screws, and he plops the bloody bits of metal into a cup of, presumably, sterilizing alcohol.
Vinnie struggles to maneuver with the halo at times. He thwacks it painfully against a car and, later, a bench press bar. He spars in a gym, sometimes doling out wicked blows to the body. He's hit in the face once by a boxing dummy. Elsewhere, Lou gets punched by a boxer during an after-bout fracas.
Crude or Profane Language
About 45 f-words and half a dozen s-words. We also hear "a--," "b--ch," "d--n" and "h---." God's name is misused six times, while Jesus' name is abused about 10. We hear crass references to the male anatomy.
Drug and Alcohol Content
When doctors go to remove Vinny's halo, he refuses any anesthetic, saying he's never used any alcohol or drugs and won't start now.
But some of Vinny's associates don't exhibit that commitment to sobriety. Kevin, in particularly, has a drinking problem. When we first see him, the trainer's passed out in a hallway, lying limply on the floor. Shortly thereafter—perhaps the next morning—he meets Vinny for the first time.
"You're drunk," Vinny observes.
"I'm hung over," Kevin corrects. "Huge difference."
It's suggested that Mike Tyson fired Kevin because of his drinking problem, specifically a DUI charge he received. But Kevin continues to drink in excess. In one scene, he's had a few too many at a bar and is followed out by the establishment's owner and police officers when he leaves. The latter promptly take Kevin into custody as soon as he opens his car door to drive home. (He's kept in the clink for 11 hours and loses his driver's license.) Kevin also drinks heavily at the Pazienza home. Kevin and other characters imbibe wine, beer, whiskey and champagne.
Angelo enjoys cigars, and sometimes Kevin joins him on the porch for a smoke. Most of the other members of the Pazienza family, and a couple of Vinny's girlfriends, smoke cigarettes.
Other Negative Elements
Vinny disregards his doctor's advice and begins training while still wearing his halo. Moreover, he lies to his family when he resumes his workouts. When Angelo finds out about it, Vinny apologizes. "I'm sorry, Pop," he says. "I didn't want you to worry."
Vinny and others gamble—sometimes taking huge financial risks while doing so. Two of Vinny's fights take place in huge Las Vegas casinos. Angelo also gambles with friends.
"This is what I do," Vinny tells his father as he strives to return to the ring. "I don't know how not to do it." And you've gotta admire the guy's pluck.
Bleed for This is predicated on Vinny's fight to fight, his determination to return to the ring, no matter the odds. Even before his cataclysmic accident, people were telling him to hang up the gloves. And then, to fight after suffering a broken neck … well, that's just foolhardy, isn't it? Even Kevin encourages him to give up boxing.
"You aren't going to fight again," he tells him. "It's over. You got to let it go." But Vinny doesn't. Apparently, he can't.
Bleed for This wants Vinny to be our hero. But I can't see him as one. As much as I respect his courage and determination, the endgame and the risks involved feel too great, too serious. No matter that the real Vinny Pazienza (whose story this movie is based upon) did indeed go on to win more world titles after his injury. No matter that the real Pazienza started working out five days after his car accident, not the more believable month that the movie suggests.
I don't know whether it was perfectly safe (or, at least, as safe as one can be in boxing) for the real Vinny Pazienza to climb back into the ring after his crash. In the movie, though, there's always the threat of another catastrophic injury to his neck—one that could send Vinny to the hospital again, paralyze him, or kill him. His return to the ring doesn't feel heroic to me: It feels dumb.
I get that Vinny loves boxing. I get that the idea of returning to the ring is what helped make his recovery bearable. But here's the thing: Sometimes we have to give up something we love. If not for ourselves, then for others.
Bleed for This is filled with brutal blows, bare bodies and the occasional blasphemy. It asks us to look beyond Vinny's rough edges and see a hero in him—a hero I have a difficult time seeing. While I can laud Vinny Pazienza's courage and be glad that things worked out for him, I don't see a role model when I look at this boxer. I see a guy who's willing to risk everything—his family, his friends, his own safety—for an idol that doesn't deserve it.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Miles Teller as Vinny Pazienza; Aaron Eckhart as Kevin Rooney; Ciarán Hinds as Angelo Pazienza; Katey Sagal as Louise Pazienza
Ben Younger ( )
November 18, 2016
February 14, 2017