– Chuck Wepner: “…If I can survive the Marines, I can survive Ali.”
Here’s the thing: before I watched the trailer for this film, I had never heard of Chuck Wepner. Now, I’m intrigued by him because of his turbulent life. He was a boxer that became the pride of his home town when he lasted fifteen rounds with the world’s heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali. Legend has it that the fight inspired Sylvester Stallone to write Rocky. So, if you loved the Rocky films, then you need to see Chuck. There’s a familiarity to it that’s quite lovable.
This biopic, starring Liev Schreiber in the title role, is very entertaining. It takes you back to the 1970s and it feels like you’re right there. Chuck is a journeyman fighter who shows the world what he’s all about in the ring against Ali. He becomes a local hero and people call him “The Real-Life Rocky”, but he ends up getting caught in a celebrity head rush.
As conventional as this film may be, Chuck is an interesting guy and Schreiber digs deep into the persona of a man who has great potential but keeps making bad choices. Whether he’s coming home to his family stinking of vodka or snorting lines of coke at the bar, he has a habit of doing the wrong thing.
So, it’s one of those stories about how fame can change you. I’ve seen it a hundred times in a hundred different movies, but I’m fine with the fact that Chuck doesn’t go the distance because it never attempts to. It moves through boxing tropes with a grin on its face. The whole film is told in a self-deprecating way, which I found amusing. It’s aware that it’s yet again spinning another tale about a boxer down on his luck.
It’s an easy-going movie that welcomes and practically bows down to Stallone’s iconic character. There are little winks to the audience, including a funny subplot in which Chuck is chasing down a part in Rocky II.
But it’s not all about the story. Visually, the film energetic and cinematically rich. From the costumes to the set designs, it has a vintage look that’s great fun to watch. Good acting is always a bonus, especially when the actors are playing real people. Schreiber plays Chuck with flair and truth, while Ron Perlman hams it up as Wepner’s coach. Niamoi Watts plays Linda, a bartender who develops an instant bond with Chuck, and the role serves her well.
Best of all is the no fuss direction. There’s no fancy camera work, it’s extremely basic and self-assured. Chuck proves once again that you don’t need special effects for maximum impact.
It’s maybe not as life-affirming as other sports movies, but there’s an honesty to it which I value highly. Ultimately, it works mainly because Wepner’s story is so watchable. A quote from the film sums it up nicely: “Sometimes life is like a movie. Sometimes it’s better.”
Director: Phillipe Falardeau
Writers: Jeff Feaerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Christofer & Liev Schreiber
Stars: Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Elizabeth Moss, Ron Perlman, Morgan Spector, Sadie Sink.
Distributor: IFC Films
Run Time: 98 min.