Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 14, 2017)
Back in the 1970s, boxer Chuck Wepner became the inspiration for 1976’s Rocky. All these decades later, the fighter gets his own film via 2017’s aptly-named Chuck.
Known as “The Bayonne Bleeder”, New Jersey boxer Chuck Wepner (Liev Schreiber) gets a reputation as a tough cookie who can take ample physical abuse. He boasts enough punching skill to rise through the ranks and eventually get a 1975 shot at the championship against Muhammad Ali (Pooch Hall).
In addition to a view of his boxing career, Chuck looks at Wepner’s private life. We join Chuck with his second wife Phyllis (Elisabeth Moss) and their kids – and also see Chuck’s pursuit of Linda (Naomi Watts), a bartender who becomes his third wife.
Unlike Rocky, Chuck doesn’t give us a boxing match as its climax. Indeed, Wepner’s bout with Ali shows up about one-third of the way into the movie, and when it concludes, the film barely dallies with Wepner’s fighting career again.
On the surface, that choice makes sense, as Chuck wants to focus more on Wepner’s “fall” than on his “rise”. The final hour or so of the movie sticks with the poor way Wepner handles his newfound fame and the ways he eventually copes with his issues.
Maybe I’m just a sucker for the positive side of the tale, but Chuck fares much better during its initial act. We get an interesting character narrative that proceeds to the compelling bout against Ali.
After that, like Wepner’s life, the film tends to fall apart somewhat. I don’t want to overstate the manner in which Chuck loses steam, but it tends to feel tedious as we watch Chuck do a lot of cocaine, fool around with a lot of women and generally fall into disrepute.
Some of this goes a long way, and I suspect Chuck might’ve worked better if the Ali fight came up an hour into the movie instead of at the 30-minute point. We’d still have plenty of time to see Wepner’s downfall, but the tale wouldn’t wallow so much in this misery.
If Chuck came with ample insights, that wallowing would pay off, but it tends to remain superficial. I don’t feel like it tells us much about Wepner as a person, so the second and third acts feel repetitive and sluggish.
Despite these drawbacks, Schreiber does well as our lead. Though too old to play Wepner in the 70s, he makes us forget the age difference, as Schreiber gives us a warm, human take on his role. The supporting cast does nicely as well, but Schreiber offers the best parts of the film.
Unfortunately, the movie itself lets him down, as Chuck just lacks real drive much of the time. It wears too much of a Scorsese influence on its sleeve – mainly in the GoodFellas vein – and loses steam long before it ends.