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May 12, 2017

Hey, did you ever hear about Chuck Wepner? A working-class hero of Bayonne, New Jersey, he was the first boxer to fight Ali after the Rumble in the Jungle, and he came within nineteen seconds of going all fifteen rounds. That fight kinda sorta inspired the script of Rocky. Maybe. If you squint at it. Then he mostly tried cruising on that fame and screwed up his life before putting it back together and settling down to run a liquor store.

The challenge of Chuck is to draw that paragraph out into a hundred-minute feature. Because that’s really all there is to this guy. I’m sure that Wepner (herein played by Liev Schreiber) is a great guy who loves his wife, Linda (Naomi Watts, nearly unrecognizable in ’70s makeup and redhead wig), and surely treats her better than he did his long-suffering second wife, Phyllis (Elizabeth Moss). But honestly I just don’t really care about this guy, and making the audience care is job one for a biopic.

It’s not like this is a fantastic boxing movie. Wepner scorned the “sweet science”, and mostly achieved fame on his ability to take a punch and keep on lumbering. He may have hated it, but they didn’t call him the “Bayonne Bleeder” for nothing. So we get the one bout with Ali (Pooch Hall), in which he does little but survive, and that’s about it. There are flashes on his infamous pro-wrestling appearance with Andre the Giant, and that time — I hope the only time — when he got in the ring with a bear. And they’re good for a hit of absurdism, but don’t have much to offer Rocky fans.

Speaking of which, Chuck does manage to get in contact with a young Sly Stallone (Morgan Spector), who even offers him a bit part in Rocky II. He seems to be a fan of Chuck’s, or at least to be glad to meet the boxer, but it’s not clear how accurate that is. Co-writer Jeff Feuerzig told this same story in a documentary for ESPN in 2011, so he surely knows about the lawsuit between Wepner and Stallone, but it doesn’t seem to make an appearance here.

Instead, Chuck squanders his opportunity with his escalating cocaine habit, egged on by his sycophantic friends (Jason Jones and Jim Gaffigan, the latter playing marvelously against type). Abandoned by his wife and his manager (Ron Perlman), and failing to reconnect with his brother (Michael Rapaport), he hits bottom without even a blaze of glory to make a good climax.

It’s nice to see Schreiber get a leading role that still lets him work his character acting skills, but Chuck‘s story is just not that interesting. Director Philippe Falardeau and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc seem more interested in matching the grain of their film stock to the archival footage they cut it together with, and little if any effort goes into making this a movie worth watching.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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