The real life boxer you don’t know, who stands behind the fictional one you do.
Director: Philippe Faladeau/2017
“You know me, but you don’t know you know me”
These are the opening lines of the new boxing biopic on Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner, aptly titled Chuck. If you don’t know Wepner, he was the Heavyweight Champ of New Jersey. Earning the nickname “the Bayonne Bleeder” for the massive amount of blood he would shed when his face was cut during a fight, and the name of his hometown, Chuck Wepner would never quit. After a fight, he’d wake up the next morning and go to work as a liquor salesman. So what is so special about Chuck Wepner that would earn him the honor of having a film made about his life?
This is where you know him, but you didn’t know that you knew him part comes in. You see, after working his way up the boxing circuit, he gets an offer to fight George Forman. The only caveat is that Forman has to beat Muhammad Ali in the famed “Rumble in the Jungle”. No way Ali wins, right? At least that is what he believes…until Ali wins. It looks like Chuck’s big break has passed.
If this story sounds remotely familiar, its because you’ve seen it before. An unknown actor by the name of Sylvester Stallone used the story of this unknown upstart, named Chuck Wepner, going the distance against the Champion of the World to win a Best Picture Academy Award for a little film called Rocky.
Leiv Schreiber plays the titled character, and is perfectly suited for this role. Also serving as a writer and producer, Schreiber jumps fully into the life of a man we all know, even if we don’t know it. He has swagger, bravado, and enough self-destructive habits to ensure that things will never truly break his way. After seeing Ali take away his chance to fight Forman, Chuck lets his wife Phyllis (Elizabeth Moss) head home alone so he can have time to process. Really, he is meeting a girl he saw in a line earlier in the night to hook up. It provides a comical, and yet tragic scene when Phyllis shows up at the diner where they are eating and proceeds to discuss with Chuck’s “date” why she is with the wrong guy. Whenever Chuck is feeling down, you see, he apparently has no problem running after any woman who catches his eye, disregarding his wife, whom he early declared undying love for, including writing poems for her. He thinks its normal. His wife, however is devastated.
With his marriage on the rocks, and his wife having taken their daughter to stay at her mom’s, Chuck’s manager, Al Braverman (Ron Perlman), calls with unbelievable news. Ali wants his next fight to be against a white guy, and since Chuck is the only white guy ranked in the top 10, so opportunity strikes again. This sets up a real David vs. Goliath fight. Chuck only wants to go the distance, as no one has against Muhammad Ali (Pooch Hall). Chuck not only lasts until the last 19 seconds of the 15th round, but he famously knocks Ali down in their 1975 fight. Despite his loss, Chuck becomes a folk hero in New Jersey, but opportunity isn’t done knocking.
If this story sounds remotely familiar, its because you’ve seen it before. An unknown actor by the name of Sylvester Stallone used the story of this unknown upstart named Chuck Wepner going the distance against the Champion of the World to win a Best Picture Academy Award for a little film called Rocky. This is why you know Chuck, but didn’t know that you knew him. But unlike Rocky who got another shot at the title, Chuck takes a completely different path. A downward spiral that unfolds, tearing everything in his life apart.
Chuck sports a great supporting cast. In addition to Schreiber, Moss, and Perlman, it also features Naomi Watts, Michael Rapaport, and Jim Gaffigan. With all sporting distinct 1970’s looks, and New Jersey accents, the entire cast does a good job disappearing into their roles, and it is because of this cast that the film is worth watching. Despite being a fascinating story about a man who inspired a cinematic classic with his own life, it is ultimately a tragic one as we watch Chuck spend his time telling everyone how he is the “real Rocky”, and the cold hard truth that he never earned a dime from the film.
Whereas Rocky built slowly until it culminated in Rocky’s big chance against Apollo Creed, and the satisfying loss of being proud knowing that he went the distance, the film Chuck works quite the opposite. Chuck has a strong start and crescendos as Chuck Wepner has his moment in the sun facing Ali. Unfortunately, the film isn’t even 1/2 over at this point. After that, the film struggles through Chuck’s downward spiral, and never seems to know what kind of ending it needs to have. To put it in boxing terms, Chuck suffers a technical knockout before its third act. It is still a film worth seeing, if for nothing else to see a great performance from Leiv Schreiber and the rest of the cast. Unfortunately, the “real life Rocky” won’t get to enjoy even a portion of the success that the popular film based on him did.
As a side note, it is interesting to watch Chuck and try to find all of the little things that he inspired Stallone (Morgan Spector plays him in this film) to include in his films, if this is believed to be an accurate representation of Chuck Wepner’s life. Besides the obvious main story of Wepner’s fight with Ali, little details emerge that shows Wepner’s influence on Rocky. Chuck writes poems. Rocky writes poems for Adrian. The way Rocky goes back to a real job following his big fight, mirror’s Wepner’s life as well. If you look close, you’ll see many more, as well as ways that it inspired other Stallone films, with Chuck having a great scene linking Wepner’s life to Stallone’s film, Lock-Up.
You’ll find Chuck at many art house cinemas this weekend, but don’t expect to see it everywhere. Sadly, for a man that inspired one of the world’s most iconic films, his life story won’t see the same glory. This fate seems to appropriately fit the real life of Chuck Wepner, who always seems to be one step behind his big breaks. At least he can celebrate the fact that not only did he inspire a 7-film franchise, but he got a chance to take another shot in letting people know that even though they don’t know that they know him, the fact is that they really do.