In Chuck, Liev Schreiber plays Chuck Wepner, the Bayonne-born heavyweight who in 1975 stood in for 14 rounds against Muhammad Ali before being dropped via TKO. The spectacle of an unknown palooka nearly going the distance against a dominant champion inspired Sylvester Stallone to write the script for Rocky, and the rest is history. The Italian Stallion became the most famous fictional boxer of all time, and presided over a resurgence of interest in the sport on- and off-screen. Wepner, whose own career ended shortly thereafter, was reduced to a footnote in his own life story.
As an attempt to redress this imbalance, Chuck, out Friday, will go only so far. Perhaps fittingly given its below-the-marquee protagonist, it’s a modest, affectionate piece of portraiture, lacking the manic highs of David O. Russell’s similarly fact-based underdog drama, The Fighter, or the rousing, crowd-pleasing finesse of Creed, which engages with the mythology and cultural omnipresence of Rocky Balboa from the inside out. But if the best boxing movies are the ones that make it feel like something is at stake outside the ring, Philippe Falardeau’s film makes the cut via its acute understanding of a certain strain of self-destructive alpha-male pathology. Its true cinematic sparring partner isn’t Rocky but Raging Bull.
French Canadian director Falardeau doesn’t overtly imitate Martin Scorsese’s classic: The color palette is ’70s polyester instead of stringent black and white, and the tone is more ambling than operatic. And certainly, Schreiber’s Chuck is a warmer figure than Robert De Niro’s catatonic Jake LaMotta. "I was too nice to be a debt collector," he informs us early on via voice-over, intentionally conjuring up memories of loan shark Tony Gazzo in Rocky lamenting that his hired muscle was too soft to rough up a guy who owed him money.
The big lug with a heart of gold is a familiar archetype, and Schreiber’s performance leans into it because Chuck does, too. At this point, Schreiber may be the reigning king of punch-drunk sports movie pugilists, including his wonderful work in the Canadian hockey comedy Goon as two-fisted fourth-liner Ross "The Boss" Rhea. He’s a measured, cerebral actor, but he’s got the height and bulk to convincingly play thugs, and anybody who’s seen footage of Wepner in the 2011 documentary The Real Rocky (whose director, Jeff Feuerzeig, was a cowriter on Chuck’s screenplay) would concede he’s captured the man’s alternately endearing and bullish bravado.
As much as Chuck hates being called "The Bleeder" (the film’s original and much more evocative title), the nickname fits somebody whose appeal lies in his ability to absorb punishment rather than dish it out. What links Chuck to Raging Bull is an underlying fascination in how and why men try to test the limits of their own indestructibility, and the collateral damage they incur in the process. Chuck isn’t an abusive monster like Jake LaMotta, but he’s still an appalling partner to Phyllis (Elisabeth Moss), who watches helplessly as her husband — already a creature of large appetites before his bout with Ali — transforms first into a C-list local celebrity dining out on his new notoriety and then into an authentically embittered lowlife who believes he’s been screwed out of Rocky’s Oscar glory.
Falardeau is a good-natured director, and his light touch is well applied to a story that another filmmaker might have buried under grit and pathos. Instead of huffing and puffing like David O. Russell to make sure we recognize the bruised humanity of the characters, Falardeau observes them with wry affection. It’s completely possible to sympathize with Chuck’s frustrations and delusions — the way he guilelessly believes in his own media-fueled status as the Great White Hype — while recognizing that he’s his own worst enemy. In a remarkable mid-film sequence, Chuck is invited to read for a cameo role in Rocky II and meets up with Stallone (ably impersonated by Morgan Spector), who treats him with kindness and generosity shaded by condescension. Reading lines back and forth in a hotel ballroom, the two men circle each other like fighters, but Chuck is overmatched from the opening bell. Against Ali, it was enough to stand there and take his lumps, but even with Sly pulling his punches, the Bayonne Bleeder can’t hold his own. (That Rocky II actually includes a sequence in which Rocky botches a commercial shoot adds an extra layer of significance.)
Like Jake LaMotta’s pathetic nightclub act in Raging Bull, Chuck’s attempts to parlay his athletic success into a career as an entertainer only reveal his willingness to be exploited; the film opens with him reduced to wrestling a bear in front of drunken nightclub patrons and covers a number of other low points, most of them under the influence of drugs or alcohol, all of which are depicted with a winning mixture of empathy and casually below-the-belt humor.
The knock against Chuck is bound to be that it’s derivative, and that its hero’s redemptive arc — traced along the contours of his romance with a seen-it-all bartender played by Naomi Watts — is a textbook case of moviemaking machinery sanding down reality’s rougher edges. ("Sometimes life is like a movie. Sometimes it’s better," muses Schreiber in one of several self-reflexive asides.) Chuck is a craftier proposition than that. By emphasizing its namesake’s desire to live up to his own pumped-up Hollywood mirror image — and the impossibility of winning that particular tale of the tape — it deftly shadowboxes against its own genre.