This biopic’s greatest strengths are the powerful performances of Liev Schreiber as real-life boxer Chuck Wepner and Elisabeth Moss as his long-suffering wife. Rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.
That’s some mighty fine acting going on up there on the screen in “Chuck.” Liev Schreiber, playing the title part of real-life boxer Chuck Wepner, and Elisabeth Moss as his first wife, Phyllis, give performances that are powerful in their honesty. (Naomi Watts in the part of his second, and current, wife, has much less screen time and impact.)
This is a saga of a screw-up. A low-rent screw-up.
Movie Review ★★½
‘Chuck,’ with Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Pooch Hall, Morgan Spector. Directed by Philippe Falardeau, from a screenplay by Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Cristofer and Schreiber. 98 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, drug use, sexuality/nudity and some bloody images. Guild 45th, Meridian.
A New Jersey club fighter, who earned the nickname the Bayonne Bleeder for his signature sanguinary trait of absorbing ever so many blows to the face, Wepner rose to short-lived prominence when he unexpectedly landed a title bout with Muhammad Ali in 1975. He even knocked the champ down, briefly. After which Ali (Pooch Hall, passable in the part) rose to his feet, pounded Wepner’s face to raw hamburger and put him on the canvas in Round 15 for a TKO. Still, the lug almost went the distance.
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Further fame came when Sylvester Stallone (Morgan Spector, convincing), after reportedly seeing the fight on TV, used elements of Wepner’s story as the partial basis for “Rocky.” After the movie became a hit, hometown fans hailed Wepner as “the real Rocky.” The adulation went to his since-healed head. And that then had the effect of laying him low once again. He tried to ingratiate himself with Stallone, but blew his chance.
It turns out the real-life Wepner was a far cry from Stallone’s idealized fighter. He was a cheating husband, a neglectful dad and eventually a druggie whose involvement with cocaine landed him in prison. The strength of Schreiber’s performance lies in the fact that his Wepner isn’t malicious in any of this, he’s just terribly careless of other people’s emotions. Self-centered and egotistical, he hurts the people close to him. But Schreiber makes him sympathetic. His Wepner behaves badly but is not, deep down, bad.
As his long-suffering spouse Phyllis, Moss is brilliant. A scene in which she verbally eviscerates one of Chuck’s temporary ladies is hair-raisingly good. Moss never raises her voice while picking apart the other woman and her husband with clinical precision, her eyes steely, the anger and the pain showing through. Chuck can only sit there, wordlessly head bowed. Shamed.
Director Philippe Falardeau’s staging of the fight scenes is pedestrian, and he’s overly reliant on voice-overs in which Schreiber explains his character’s inner feelings. But thanks to its two central performances, “Chuck” is a solid contender.