Wednesday, May 24, 2017
Chuck Wepner was a big ugly mook who became semi-famous as a footnote in both the sports and entertainment worlds. You may not think you know me, he narrates at the beginning of his biopic, “Chuck,” but you do.
It’s long been said that Muhammad Ali and his manager, Don King, picked the New Jersey boxer out of obscurity in 1975 as his next opponent after downing George Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle” because they wanted a white opponent. But as this enlightening new film directed by Philippe Falardeau (“Monsieur Lazhar”) and starring Liev Schreiber shows, Wepner may have been a blue-collar club fighter, but he was hardly a nobody.
Wepner was the eighth-ranked heavyweight fighter at the time, a 6-foot-5-inch brawler known for his uncanny ability to take punch and not go down. “The Bayonne Bleeder,” they called him, a nickname Chuck detested but accepted when it bought him a round of free drinks or a salutation on the street.
As skillfully depicted by Schreiber, Chuck is somebody who revels in the affirmation of others. He carouses his little corner of Jersey, puffed up by locals who call him “The Champ,” accepting overtures from women not because he’s a philandering cad at heart but because he’s almost genetically incapable of not returning any affection shown to him.
He’s the man who bleeds -- from his face, prodigiously, but also his heart.
Liev, an elegantly handsome actor, is surprisingly convincing as Wepner, with his permanently swollen features, arched eyebrows and fu Manchu mustache. His face resembles last night’s hamburger. Mostly, he seems like a guy trying desperately not to embarrass himself.
The story -- screenplay by Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Cristofer and Schreiber -- actually wraps up the Ali fight about a third of the way through. Chuck never harbored any illusions about beating possibly the greatest of all time -- he was already 36 and losing a step -- but was determined to go the full 15 rounds to prove the naysayers wrong.
Instead, the rest of the movie focuses on Chuck’s life after, when he coasted on his bit of celebrity as the nobody who stood toe-to-toe with the champ. (Pooch Hall plays Ali.)
Then, of course, “Rocky” happened.
The similarities between Sylvester Stallone’s breakout movie and Wepner’s real life are too close to pass the credulity test that Sly made it up on his own. In the film’s version of events, Chuck saw the movie winning a boatload of box office and a trove of Academy Awards as his own victory, too.
But he was too embarrassed to tell anyone, even his best friend, John (a fine Jim Gaffigan), that he wasn’t paid a dime for his story. Eventually, though, pride gets the better of him and he reaches out to Stallone (Morgan Spector), and a surprising connection forms.
One of the film’s disappointments is it completely sidesteps the legal wrangles and war of words between Stallone and Wepner, which went on for decades after “Rocky” came out. In some ways, “Chuck” takes too many pains not to make anybody look bad.
The movie gets the look and feel of 1970s Jersey right -- the loud clothes, the big Cadillacs, the dim bars.
Wepner’s relationship with his wife, Phyllis (Elisabeth Moss), follows the familiar up-and-down tropes of cinematic married couples, and we can’t wait for the marriage to end fast enough. Chuck runs into Linda (Naomi Watts), a hard-scoured bartender, who continually puts him off. But there’s something there, so we’re not surprised when she keeps turning up.
I also liked Ron Perlman as Al, Chuck’s manager and cut-man. Al uses Wepner as a piece of meat he could stitch up and put out there, just trying to get through the next round and the next fight, but genuinely cared about the man underneath the scar tissue. When his boxing career is clearly over, Al sets up a bout with wrestling star Andre the Giant to keep the money and the attention flowing.
“Chuck” stands out from a pantheon of boxing movies, the story of a guy who wasn’t the most skilled fighter or possessed of drive far above his talent level. Wepner was a guy who stumbled into and out of trouble, became famous almost by accident and struggled with that, too. Chuck always took his lumps, and endured.