PLOT A biopic on boxer Chuck Wepner, who coulda been a contender.
CAST Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Jim Gaffigan, Elisabeth Moss
PLAYING AT Manhasset Cinemas
BOTTOM LINE Schreiber packs a punch, but the story is familiar.
Chuck Wepner, the “Bayonne Bleeder” who went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title in 1975 and subsequently inspired “Rocky,” stands as little more than a footnote to history.
The biopic “Chuck” acknowledges this with the first lines of its opening narration (“You know me, but you don’t know you know me”) and never pretends to make something more out of its protagonist, which is refreshingly honest but dooms the movie by confining things to a generic depiction of blue-collar Bayonne and ’70s hedonism.
Inspiring a famous movie franchise isn’t enough justification for a biopic, and the filmmakers don’t quite find whatever it was that made Wepner a compelling enough figure for Sylvester Stallone to take notice.
Liev Schreiber plays the boxer, who also had a liquor route and, according to the movie, a habit of boozing, downing drugs and womanizing that defined him as much as anything else. The movie showcases his modest rise through the fighting ranks and subsequent extreme and steadfast descent.
Filmmaker Philippe Falardeau painstakingly recreates the era, transcending the trappings like plaid jackets, big mustaches and sweaty disco clubs with an effortlessly naturalistic approach that directly reflects the prevailing cinematic style in Hollywood during that decade. “Chuck” looks and feels like a ’70s movie.
Schreiber gives a performance of great conviction, in which his Wepner is both powerful and pathetic, often simultaneously. It’s a rich part, encapsulating a range of highs and lows pitched at a rapid-fire pace that allows for the projection of a great degree of confidence and vulnerability, a rapid swinging from the top of the world to the depths of addiction and self-destruction.
The film gets at something fundamental, in its own particular way: In life, one minute you’re fighting Ali, the next it’s a celebrity bear. The story’s just not as interesting as the filmmakers think it is and spends too much time on Chuck’s downward spiral. When it comes to this sort of existence, we’ve seen it all before.