It wouldn’t be such a bad idea for drama schools to offer boxing classes. For actors, portraying a pugilist is simply too delectable an opportunity: all that physicality and repressed emotion, all the psychic drama of a solitary figure stepping through the ropes to do gladiatorial battle with both an opponent—and him or herself. Chuck, originally called The Bleeder, is Liev Schreiber’s shot at a sort of heavyweight triumph. The gifted 49-year-old actor, looking like he’s in the best shape of his life, stars as the real-life Chuck Wepner, a 6-feet-5-inches tall New Jersey fighter who in 1975 went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali and even knocked down the Greatest halfway through the bout. But that’s not what made him famous. Not exactly. Sylvester Stallone was watching the Ali-Wepner match, and it’s popularly believed that he wrote Rocky based on Wepner’s inspirational underdog story.
The script for Chuck (credited to four screenwriters, including Schreiber) is careful about the Stallone connection and actually never mentions the lawsuit that Wepner filed against the actor in 2003, which was eventually settled. But this isn’t a documentary, even if Schreiber’s often-unnecessary voiceover tends to overexplain the timeline of Wepner’s life story. Stallone is actually played with relaxed affection by actor Morgan Spector (NBC’s Allegiance), and his pair of enjoyable scenes are a baseline for the movie’s scrappily fun tone. Director Philippe Falardeau (2011’s Oscar-nominated comedy Monsieur Lazhar) deserves credit for cramming a lot of event—fights, drugs, kids, lovers—into Chuck’s svelte 99 minute running time, while keeping the pace loose and leisurely. Cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc and production designer Imbal Weinberg filter the late 70s/early 80s seedy Jersey mileau through a great last-half-hour-of-GoodFellas lens.
And the supporting performances pop, another necessity in boxing flicks. Ron Pearlman is a grizzled delight (though when is he not?) as Wepner’s world-weary manager. Elisabeth Moss plays Wepner’s first wife, Phyliss, with a toughness and frustration that never curdles into a shrill movie-wife cliché. Naomi Watts slips into the film’s second half as a red-haired bartender named Linda (Wepner’s current wife) and in just a handful of scenes gives us an authentic sense of a woman whose stubbornness might have cost her a truly happy life. And Schreiber buoys the film with his characteristic blend of nuance and smirking humor, exuding likability though never lionizing the self-described “selfish prick” that he’s portraying. In a way Schreiber’s casting is fitting. He’s one of the most underappreacited actors (rewatch Spotlight for an example of how damn great he can be with the tiniest gestures) playing a guy who never got enough respect. B