Arguably the most noteworthy accomplishment of the recent Finnish boxing biopic The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki was its pointed subversion of the genre’s usual macho pieties, centering instead on a diminutive boxer who could care less about winning a title fight, if it meant being able to return to the woman he loved and the quiet life he had before. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there’s Chuck Wepner, the brash central figure of Philippe Falardeau’s new boxing biopic Chuck. Right off the bat, with Wepner (Liev Schreiber) boasting in voiceover about his connection to Sylvester Stallone’s boxing classic Rocky—he was the inspiration for the iconic boxer, after Stallone saw him almost beat Muhammad Ali in a heavyweight title fight in 1975—one can tell we’re in the presence of a character who believes in winning, especially as a way of personal validation.
Falardeau’s film is hardly an endorsement of Wepner’s machismo, however; you could say that Chuck undermines boxing-movie tropes in stealthier ways than Juho Kuosmanen did in Olli Mäki. Take Wepner as a boxer himself, to start. In his Bayonne, New Jersey, hometown, he’s popularly known as “The Bleeder,” mostly because, as an athlete, he was celebrated more for his ability to absorb a lot of blows than for his ability to beat people up in a ring. That startling physical resilience is what led to him being able to last for a full 15 rounds against Ali on March 24, 1975, before Ali finally knocked Wepner down and cemented his victory. Few showed such toughness against The Greatest, and surely that’s what attracted Stallone in conceiving of Rocky Balboa.
Falardeau and screenwriters Schreiber, Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, and Michael Cristofer, however, are ultimately less interested in Wepner as a boxer than as a celebrity—at least, in his own mind. The second half of Chuck chronicles Wepner’s life after the release of Rocky, and, at least as the film tells it, his is a classic case of a man who allowed fame to go to his head, flaming out in spectacular fashion through a combination of alcoholism, drug addiction, marital infidelity and the familial troubles that resulted from both. The irony of Wepner’s rise and fall is that he didn’t exactly rise to great heights in the first place. He puffed himself up mostly by hammering home that tenuous connection to Stallone’s fictional creation, and ultimately kept trying to hold onto his 15 minutes of fame, even as most people around him had long forgotten about it.
If The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, was about a boxer who didn’t really care about the limelight, Chuck is about a boxer who cares too much about it—who, if anything, believes it’s the only way he can prove to people that he matters. Falardeau & co. naturally give this obsession with fame the critical perspective it deserves, but that’s not to oversell its unconventional qualities. Chuck in many other respects is a familiar boxing drama, with Falardeau borrowing liberally from the Martin Scorsese/David O. Russell stylistic playbook in chronicling Wepner’s life in and outside the ring, from its hyperactive camera moves during boxing scenes and wall-to-wall ’70s rock soundtrack, to the exaggerated regional accents and at-times-hysterical performances.
Thankfully, the performances are strong enough to keep feelings of overfamiliarity at bay. Elisabeth Moss brings a quiet fury to her role as Wepner’s first wife, Phyllis, energizing what is essentially yet another thankless long-suffering-spouse role. By contrast, Naomi Watts comes off as a tad ill-at-ease as Linda, the gutsy bartender who eventually becomes his second wife, but she is, at the very least, strikingly unrecognizable in the role. Above all, though, there’s Schreiber, who not only cuts a fearsome physical presence as Chuck Wepner, but lays bare his character’s narcissistic flaws while never losing touch with the man’s child-like need for recognition. Schreiber refuses to condescend to Wepner, and the best thing about Chuck is that it follows its leading man’s lead in empathizing with him, at least up to a point.
Director: Philippe Falardeau
Writer: Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Crisfoter, Liev Schreiber
Starring: Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Ron Perlman, Naomi Watts, Jim Gaffigan, Michael Rapaport
Release Date: May 5, 2017
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and the Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.