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The Champ Is Not Here

Boxing has never been less relevant, but Hollywood keeps cranking out movies like ‘Bleed for This.’ Why? So actors can indulge their vanity — and because these films are profitable.

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Early in Bleed for This, Miles Teller’s new movie about a boxer’s improbable comeback, Teller strolls down a hallway at Caesar’s Palace, the picture of assholish confidence. Teller plays Vinny Pazienza, who’s challenging for the junior welterweight title. (He will lose to Roger Mayweather — Floyd’s uncle.) He’s late to the weigh-in; he’s just spent an hour Saran-wrapped on a stationary bike to hit his number. And by god, Teller is going for it: He’s gaunt-ripped, with a fizzy little mustache and a matching leopard-patterned thong and bathrobe set. His group walks straight toward the camera, striding in slow motion as Audio Two’s “Top Billin’” blares. Pazienza’s girlfriend (one of four brunettes the movie rotates in and out, like the pea in the shell game) trips, eats carpet, goes down in a heap. It’s an odd moment — it’s funny because she falls down, I guess? — but it works well enough to signal the movie’s theme. Pazienza turns, sees her on the ground, and continues padding across the casino floor, into the ballroom, and onto the scale, where he flexes and mugs like the champ he’ll eventually become. Welcome, the moment says, to the Miles Teller show.

That’s Bleed for This: an effortful step in the Miles Teller Redemption Tour. He’s the star, and nothing — not that rotating sequence of girlfriends; not Ciarán Hinds’s preposterous Providence, Rhode Island, accent; not a clumsy script or a bizarre neo-blues soundtrack or some truly gross hospital scenes — will stop his strut. Pazienza’s is the kind of story that gets people talking about life rights far before it’s over: He was a champion boxer who broke his neck in a car wreck, was fitted with a screwed-in halo, and defied every doctor’s orders to get himself back into fighting (and title-winning) shape. It would not surprise me if Vinny Pazienza himself looked into having a movie made about his own life as his comeback was underway.

They’ve finally made that movie, and while it’s not very good, it’s exactly what Teller needs right now. Teller, of course, has found his ascent to leading-manhood studded with obstacles, some of them self-made. After bracing turns in The Spectacular Now and Whiplash, he’s bounced from “friend who makes boner jokes” (That Awkward Moment) to YA sidekick (the Divergent series) to full-fledged superhero — in a complete bomb of a superhero movie (Fantastic Four). Nothing quite fit.

But Bleed for This is meant to put all that to rest. Teller’s performance ticks every leading-man box: massive physical change, acquisition of a difficult-to-master skill, deployment of a regional American accent, convincing portrayal of physical disability and the human spirit required to overcome it. Teller manages to work a funky alchemy with the role, melding his best qualities as an actor (a willingness to endure abuse, and an ability to emerge from it smiling) with his spiky public persona. It’s a strange fit for a slow and deliberate film, one that ducks and shoulder-rolls away from boxing-movie conventions before ultimately acquiescing with a third-act redemption in the ring. But director Ben Younger gives Teller’s performance enough room to do what it’s intended to: generate long-shot Oscar buzz, flood the zone with stories about Teller’s diet, and give him the chance to play jokey and self-aware with the press. Even if Bleed for This doesn’t light the box office on fire, it will have accomplished something important: It’s proof that Teller can (literally) carry a movie on his shoulders.

Bleed is the latest in a wave of recent fight films, all precisely calibrated to serve as leading-man vehicles. 2015 gave us Jake Gyllenhaal’s somber performance in Southpaw and Michael B. Jordan’s basically perfect one in Creed; this year, we got the Edgar Ramírez–Robert De Niro bummer Hands of Stone and Teller’s Bleed. What I’m wondering is: why?

Boxing was once a major sport in America. No one had to justify the production of Rocky or Raging Bull. But in 2016? When the biggest fight of the year is days away and the only boxing-related headline on ESPN.com is about a fantasy matchup, boxing has never been less popular. How is it that we find ourselves awash in boxing movies?

The answer starts in 1976. Back then, before Rocky fragmented into a series of motivational triggers — the sides of beef and “Yo Adrian!” and the Philly steps and “Eye of the Tiger” — it was that rarest of movie unicorns: a crazy-popular Best Picture winner. Rocky wasn’t exactly critically beloved (in the Times, Vincent Canby called it “absurdly oversold” and “sentimental”) but it struck a chord with the academy — and made nearly $120 million against a million-dollar budget.

That was not an accident. The boxing movie is perfectly engineered to straddle the line between prestige and populism. Add it all up: If a boxing movie isn’t about the triumph of the human spirit (and it usually is), it’s about the agony of defeat. No matter the supporting cast, it is ultimately the story of one man (or woman) literally fighting the enemy. Sometimes that enemy is an opponent; just as often, it’s the fighter’s own demons. Or it’s communism, or racism, or misogyny. These are not difficult causes to get behind. The boxing movie is nominally “about sports,” but it’s always about something “bigger than sports.” (And anyway, is there an easier sport to understand than hand-to-hand combat?) No great boxer has ever come from wealth; there’s a reason that we call them the People’s Champ. Boxers are easy to root for.

The box office over the last 40 years tells us that not every boxing movie is alike, and that not every boxing movie is a guaranteed hit. But the most recent wave share some important similarities, and shed some light on why the format has become so popular recently. Note the ebb and flow in the post-Rocky period: For every cash-machine Rocky sequel, there’s an underwhelming Undisputed, or a flop like Play It to the Bone. At the turn of the century, the boxing movie became an obvious path to Oscar contention — only minus the frugality and broad appeal that made Rocky so unique. Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe, failed to make back its $88 million in production costs. Michael Mann’s Will Smith–starring Muhammad Ali biopic — a clean uppercut in the pitch room — muddled its way to $58 million against a budget nearly double that.

But between those two came Million Dollar Baby, and with it the formula for the modern boxing hit: find a star (Hilary Swank), and keep the budget reasonable ($30 million). And while that movie exceeded any and all reasonable expectations, it charted a path. Creed (budget: $35 million) was a smash. The Fighter (budget: $25 million) is David O. Russell’s third-highest-grossing movie. Even Southpaw (budget: $30 million), a real dog, crawled its way to $50 million. These movies are reliant on minor budgets (location scouting: dirty gym, row house) and major star power. And when you’ve got a star, financing becomes far easier to secure. That’s a difficult balance to strike for most movies — but not for a genre that promises a legitimate starring role in an industry that no longer gives them out without six-picture deals and action figures. Which means that, in a movie landscape that has essentially obliterated the middle class, boxing films still represent a (mostly) safe bet.

And in a movie landscape that has utterly decimated the leading man, even a bad bet looks pretty good.

Boxing presents the illusion of an alternative. Consider this headline, from the Toronto Sun: “‘Divergent’ star Miles Teller packs a punch as boxer Vinny Pazienza in ‘Bleed for This.’” It neatly sums up the existential question of how to be a star today. Shed your YA past, wipe away your superhero failure, and prove yourself as a leading man. Here’s how: pick up a pair of gloves, brag about cutting carbs, and make a boxing movie.

To that point: The boxing movie carries the helpful whiff of sweaty hand wraps — of authenticity. You can fake getting punched, but you can’t fake fit. This, again from the Toronto Sun, is instructive:

The appeal of the boxing movie is clear: It’s a full-on, Daniel Day-Lewis “Method” performance, only without the danger of Eckhart’s beer gut. The “put on 40 pounds” role is its own kind of vanity, but if the studio will pay you to get ripped? The choice is easy. And it happens to mean you’ll look great in a cape when you’re done shooting.

Of course, the boxing movie doesn’t solve the problem of movie stardom on its own. Which is to say: It doesn’t present a concrete answer to what you do after you’ve asserted your boxing bona fides. The Fighter was nominated for a heap of Oscars, but it’s just a blip on Mark Wahlberg’s IMDb page: Set against movies about raunchy stuffed animals, racist talking robots, and Peter Berg’s sour patriotism, it looks like a quirk of lucky scheduling. For Jake Gyllenhaal, Southpaw in hindsight looks less like a strategic gesture at mass-audience stardom than an on-brand segment of his self-abnegating Prisoners-Enemy-Nightcrawler run.

But the two boxers of greatest interest to us are Teller and Michael B. Jordan. Each followed Fantastic Four with a boxing movie; the differences between those movies, and between their approaches to them, tell us a lot about what a boxing film can (and can’t) do for a young actor. It’s no coincidence that Jordan’s Creed — itself part of the Rocky lineage — gets closer than just about anything I’ve seen to that film’s blend of high and low, of Real Art and Real Money. Which makes it all the more depressing to realize that Jordan’s star-making turn just puts him back in contention for a new slate of superhero movies. He’ll play the villain in Creed director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, and then, in all likelihood, he’ll do Creed 2. This is the boxing movie as double-bind: It starts as a chance to escape spandex. But if you do a good enough job, you win the opportunity to … wear more spandex.

Teller, meanwhile, will ride his Bleed momentum into two deeply meat-and-potatoes roles. He’ll be part of the ensemble in Granite Mountain, the story of the 19 firefighters who died fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, and he’ll star opposite, improbably, Amy Schumer in the (also improbable) adaptation of David Finkel’s Thank You for Your Service, a nonfiction account of PTSD-afflicted Iraq War veterans. Bleed for This, then, ferries him across the dangerous chasm between youthful exuberance and adult (self-) seriousness.

Which is really a drag. Teller’s best moments in Bleed come when he’s being a jerk: to his assorted girlfriends, to his trainer, to his doctor. But the film hammers him into likable-guy territory: Teller’s dickishness isn’t allowed to impede his franchise-carrying display, and Pazienza’s arrogance can’t ever present a realistic challenge to his triumph. It’s a shame, because the heart of the movie isn’t the title fight. It’s not even really about boxing at all: It’s all in Pazienza’s relationship with Eckhart’s balding, paunchy trainer. Together, they’re jocular and enabling; they’re sad and cocky and aggressive and loving. Their relationship carries the germ of a far more interesting movie, one that hovers in the background here: one about a driven student and the teacher willing to risk danger to help him achieve greatness. But that movie? That’s a movie that Miles Teller’s already made.