Starring Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Jim Gaffigan, Michael Rapaport, Morgan Spector, Pooch Hall, Wass Stevens, Megan Sikora, Melo Ludwig, Sadie Sink, Jason Jones, Catherine Corcoran, Ivan Martin, Angela Marie Roy, William Hill and John Brodeur.
Screenplay by Jeff Feuerzeig and Jerry Stahl.
Directed by Philippe Falardeau.
Distributed by IFC Films. 98 minutes. Rated R.
It makes a certain amount of sense that Chuck – a film based upon the hard-knock life of 70s New Jersey boxer Chuck Wepner – would open with a chyron quoting a line from a fictional movie character.
It is because that quote was from Rocky Balboa, the classic boxing film role which was loosely based upon Wepner’s life. Sylvester Stallone, an unknown struggling actor and boxing fan, wrote the screenplay for Rocky in a rush after Wepner’s brief brush with fame – going 15 rounds with heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.
The character had many differences from Wepner as well. Wepner was a ranked heavyweight, though not the top-ranked one, so it was not a total stretch that he would get the fight. Rocky was a ham-and-egger who never had even sparred with a ranked opponent, so the idea of fighting the champ was a total fantasy. Rocky was an introverted, single Philadelphian, while Wepner was an outgoing, married father from New Jersey.
However, several of the traits from Wepner’s story were used in Rocky. Like Rocky, Wepner was a brutish boxer, not very lithe, but he could take a hit and he had a hard punch. He was a lesser-known white fighter who was chosen as something of a gimmick when the champ’s original opponent was not able to fight. Wepner had done some time as a collector for a local loan shark – though Wepner was no longer doing that when the fight came up. He became a local working-class hero, a beloved underdog. And his opponent did not take him at all seriously until he finally realized that this guy was really there to fight.
It was a terrific story, and Rocky became a film classic, winning the Best Picture Oscar in 1977.
Ironically, after Rocky became such a huge hit, Ali’s manager Don King went to the well again, this time picking a mostly unknown Uruguayan boxer named Alfredo Evangelista to offer their own Rocky story. Ali, who was already on the downslope on his career, danced around and allowed the challenger to stay on his feet all 15 rounds, but it was no real contest. That gimmick and the fight have pretty much been forgotten.
And honestly, other than by hardcore fight fans, the Ali-Wepner fight is only slightly more well-remembered. Therefore, it does make an intriguing movie idea – a man who never quite made anything of himself, but still was able to bask in the glow of proximity to fame.
It’s a fascinating story, but strangely, in a way, that was a story that had already been told, in Rocky. The fight itself was just part of Chuck’s story, in fact the big fight is over less than 40 minutes into the film. More of the film is about the man’s fall from grace after his almost-brush with fame.
As far as the film reveals, Wepner never had another major bout in his career after his inspirational Ali fight. In fact, the only two other fights Chuck investigates at all were novelty gigs, exhibition fights with wrestler Andre The Giant and Viktor the bear from the Clint Eastwood film Paint Your Wagon.
Instead, Wepner was seduced by his minor fame – first because of the bout, later because of the movie. Suddenly everyone wanted to know him, he was the most popular guy in any bar. Wepner gave in to his womanizing tendencies, lost his wife and daughter, drank way too much, got involved in drugs and watched his life spin further and further out of control.
Sadly, it is far from a surprising story, but Chuck tells it with heart, verve, and proficiency. The film is leavened by strong performances – particularly by Liev Schreiber as the very flawed, but essentially good-hearted galoot who gets more caught up in his dreams than his reality.
Because it appears that Wepner was always much more interested in where he wanted to be than where he was. Seeing himself in the movies – even before Rocky was made – he never stopped to look at his reality. (Ironically, for a film that revolves its plot around Rocky – and it was probably just a matter of licensing – but Chuck shows significantly more clips of Anthony Quinn’s classic film Requiem for a Heavyweight, which was apparently Wepner’s favorite, than it does of Rocky.)
In the long run, I’m not sure the Wepner’s life story warranted a big-screen treatment, as it has gotten here. However, I’m glad Chuck was made. A smart, funny, era-specific (love that 70s soundtrack!) cautionary tale about brushes with sudden fame, the story is even more trenchant in today’s fame-obsessed environment than it was when the story took place.
More importantly, it tells a tale of real, imperfect people, losing their way sometimes but always trying to find their way back. Chuck will never be a hugely beloved film – like… say… Rocky – but I have a feeling it will get a small-but-passionate following.
Chuck Wepner’s life was far from being picture-perfect, but in its own way it was pretty fascinating.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2017 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: August 15, 2017.