The expected approach to the Chuck Wepner biopic “Chuck” is to piggyback the “Rocky” story, with a sweeping score, a simplified hero and the big fight versus Muhammad Ali at the finish.
But the makers of the movie are more interested in examining the myth behind the real-life inspiration for Rocky Balboa than building more fantasy on top of the story. And they have an excellent centerpiece, as Liev Schreiber submerges himself in a deep and nuanced lead performance as the “Bayonne Bleeder.”
Actors almost always get too much credit for the success of films that are conceived and shaped years before the roles are filled. (Remember that Michael J. Fox replaced Eric Stoltz in the middle of the “Back to the Future” shoot.) But in this case, Schreiber and the superb supporting cast repeatedly rescue it. They keep “Chuck” watchable, masking deficiencies in a narrative that builds to a structural anticlimax.
“Chuck” begins with a “GoodFellas” vibe, with iconic rock and R&B songs playing as the Wepner character narrates his own flashbacks. He’s a lovable punching bag of a heavyweight contender from working class Bayonne, N.J., who is forced to race against time and knock out opponents before a doctor calls the fight because of his excessive bleeding.
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The fight against Ali, which comes well before the halfway mark, is told through a near-seamless blend of newsreels and live action. Then, in one of the more pleasing twists, the movie focuses on Wepner’s role as the inspiration for “Rocky.” (With Morgan Spector supplying a note-perfect Sylvester Stallone impersonation, even though the resemblance is a stretch.)
The acting is excellent throughout, with Elisabeth Moss contributing memorable work as Wepner’s long-suffering wife, Phyllis, and a supporting cast including Jim Gaffigan, Jason Jones and Ron Perlman — all solid in almost unrecognizable roles. And yet everyone and everything in “Chuck” orbits Schreiber, who captures the subtleties of a man whose great strengths and weaknesses blend together for a lovable humanity.
By the last third of the movie, the plot is like a Chuck Wepner fight, just trying to hold on to the finish. It seems as if scenes are missing, the relationship with a new love interest is unconvincing, and the happy-ish ending seems rushed.
But Schreiber continues to sell each moment, as he does through the entire movie. The Chuck Wepner story is a compelling one, and the performances ensure its place as a sports movie contender.
(At the Barrywoods, Glenwood Arts, Studio 28, Town Center.)
Rated R for language throughout, drug use, sexuality/nudity and some bloody images.