A measure of an exceptional actor is not only their ability to embrace the character mentally, but also physically. Sports movies especially demand an immense level of commitment to achieve the body to match the words. Miles Teller (Whiplash, The Spectacular Now) brings yet another stellar performance in the incredible true story of Vinny Pazienza’s rise to the top.
From the offset, this Italian-American Junior Welterweight boxer’s arrogance is evident, opting to spend his time gambling away money instead of completing vital pre-fight preparation. This carelessness forces him to desperate lengths in order to make weight and the dehydration he suffers ultimately becomes his downfall in the ring. After a series of embarrassing defeats, his father (Ciaran Hinds) hires the famed trainer of Mike Tyson, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), in an attempt to revitalise his career. In a move considered suicidal by the rest of Pazienza’s team, Rooney recommends a shift in division, up to the Junior Welterweight. Here Vinny thrives, no longer cutting corners to make weight and ultimately winning the title bout.
In typical Pazienza fashion, Vinny heads to a casino in order to celebrate his comeback victory, however a devastating head-on collision on the journey there cuts the festivities short. His spine may have been broken but his spirit most certainly isn’t as he immediately expresses the desire to get back into the ring as soon as possible. This lust to continue boxing is not shared by his team nor his family, who collectively become resigned to the seemingly obvious truth that the Pazmanian Devil’s career is over.
Upon leaving the hospital, Vinny’s head resembles scaffolding after receiving multiple screws to the skull. Although the device, named a Halo, has the potential for clear religious parallels, cinematographer Larkin Seiple purposely strays away from provoking such themes. Instead, his mother Louise (Katey Sagal) is the beacon of religion choosing to listen to her son’s fights in a nearby room filled with holy tokens rather than watch him get hurt.
Quickly becoming frustrated with his newfound immobility and reliance on others, Vinny begins to secretly train in the basement of their family home and soon after Rooney is persuaded against his better judgement to assist. Initially the training is strenuous with the bar being the extent of what Vinny can manage. One Rocky-esque training montage later though and his return to the ring seems more realistic. This does not go unnoticed, with his father Angelo quick to condemn their actions and refusing to become involved, not wishing to see his son further injured.
What follows is by no means groundbreaking, nor does it push the boundaries of the boxing genre forward, but is entirely captivating nevertheless. Director Ben Younger conveys the dogged determination and resilience of Pazienza’s journey brilliantly with highly commendable performances from Eckhart and Teller. The lack of emotional depth however is an ever-present one which, aside from making this picture a simple watch, hinders it from entering the domain of the boxing classic.