We all know the story of Rocky Balboa, Philadelphia’s most successful, albeit fictional, sports star. But few know of the flesh and blood legend who inspired cinema’s greatest underdog tale. His name is Chuck Wepner, and in 1975 he went into the ring against Muhammad Ali in a heavyweight title bout. No, he didn’t win, but he did last 15 rounds facing 40-1 odds that he’d even last 5, and he managed to knock Ali square on his ass.
Hailing from Bayonne, New Jersey (sorry Philly), Wepner earned the moniker of “The Bayonne Bleeder” due to his nearly inhuman ability to eat punches at twice the rate Rocky could presumably eat lightning. What he craps is a mystery better left unsolved.
In the years after his title bout with Ali, Wepner went through a period of hard partying and drug addiction, and it’s this period which serves as the focal point of Chuck, IFC’s refreshingly candid biopic. Unlike so many films of this type, very little of what we see is candy-coated. For much of the film Wepner is portrayed as a monster. He’s a selfish philanderer with a appetite for cocaine and booze rivaled only by his ego, and while Chuck does exhibit his undeniable charm, it takes no pains to excuse his behavior. In doing so we get a boxing movie in reverse. Rather than culminating in a cathartic fight which doubles as an arc-completion, this film’s big brawl serves as the inciting incident. From here we watch as the fallout from this brush with superstardom forms a perfect storm with Wepner’s own demons, propelling him into a dark spiral of ruin, rumination, and finally, redemption.
And wouldn’t you know it, by refusing to – ahem – pull any punches, Chuck paints a picture of a truly relatable, human protagonist, one whose ability to own his flaws and work to make amends makes him much more engaging than any at the center of a more classically designed biopic. In steadfastly refusing to demand our forgiveness, Chuck simply earns it through strong characterization and an adherence to reality.
Liev Schreiber, who co-wrote the film, disappears entirely into the title role, playing Wepner with a reserve not typical to this sort of thing. There are no big monologues about love and loss, no moments where hunger for award recognition edges craft to the background, and not an ounce of ‘ACK-TING!’ The absence of any metatextual aggrandizing from Schreiber (and the cast on the whole) will ultimately be what resonates most in my memory.
Elisabeth Moss steals the film’s first act as Wepner’s now ex-wife, Phyliss. Their damaged marriage is genuine, and even though their relationship is not fleshed out on the page, her performance makes it all too clear how they came to be together and how they’ve found themselves to be where they are at the outset of the film. Also notable as Wepner’s best buddy is, believe it or not, Jim Gaffigan. It’s a role that Philip Seymour Hoffman would have played earlier in his career, back when he was relegated to playing pathetic, pasty slobs. Gaffigan squelches his goofball stand up comedy persona for something equally funny but much more rooted in the pathos of small-town loneliness.
The entire cast is loaded with people you don’t often see in movies like this, all of whom are doing fantastic work. Ron Perlman and Jason Jones both fill out two boxing movie tropes in unexpectedly genuine, non-tropey ways (the cut man and the enabler, respectively), while Naomi Watts, as Wepner’s current wife and savior, Linda, is pitch perfect as usual. The always on-point Michael Rappaport shows up too as Wepner’s estranged brother.
The filmmakers committed to using only small pieces of actual footage from Wepner’s life, always obscuring his face when they do so as to suspend any disbelief that the reenactments are the real deal. They even go so far as to use actors to play people like Muhammad Ali and Sylvester Stallone. Seriously, the dude they got to play Stallone is kinda mind-blowing. He looks a lot like Sly, but his voice is spot the hell on. Close your eyes and you could never tell the difference.
Chuck is simply excellent. Solid filmmaking with minimal flash and maximum talent, all in service of telling a fascinating piece of sports history. It wasn’t until the 30 for 30 documentary The Real Rocky was released that I’d ever even heard of Wepner, and I suspect that many people my age are still unfamiliar with his story. Here’s hoping Chuck keeps this distinctly American tale alive for a bit longer.
Chuck opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.