Chuck Wepner was nicknamed “the Bayonne bleeder” because he usually lost a lot
of blood in the ring without getting knocked out, which is partly why
he was picked by promoter Don King to fight against Muhammad Ali for the
World’s heavyweight title in 1975.
Chuck details Wepner’s home life before that famous fight and his
relationship with his wife Phyllis (Elisabeth Moss), a postal worker who
is continually getting angry about Wepner’s philandering.
French-Canadian director Philippe Falardeau (“The Good Lie”) is burdened
with creating the look and feel of the 1970s in New Jersey — and he
does the best he can with the budget he had — but Chuck too often has a
cramped feeling, as if it has to keep its focus small in order to
provide any semblance of period believability.
Nobody expected Wepner to do much against the force and showmanship
of Ali, but he managed to knock Ali down in the ninth round and took a
beating from the champ over and over again while remaining doggedly
upright. Until the 15th round, that is, when Wepner hit his knees, and
the fight was called on a technical knockout with just 19 seconds left.
“I couldn’t hit him, so I figured that I’d wear him down with my face,”
Wepner’s marriage to Phyllis finally falls apart due to his drug-taking
and orgiastic womanizing, and his attempt to ingratiate himself with
Stallone (a very convincing Morgan Spector) results in
humiliation as he attempts to audition for a role in Rocky II and
finds that he can’t act the part of himself.
If you look at footage of Wepner being interviewed and fighting Ali,
you can see that Schreiber has become this man for the camera, capturing
Wepner’s low bruiser voice, his hulking physicality, and his overall
hangdog presence. Schreiber is even able to slip into a note-perfect
imitation of Anthony Quinn in the boxing picture Requiem for a
Heavyweight, Wepner’s favorite movie.
Schreiber has a very poetic moment in Chuck when Wepner watches
himself on the “Mike Douglas Show” and doesn’t like what he sees. He
turns the TV off, and then Schreiber gently touches the blank screen
with his hand. This gesture is the touchstone of Schreiber’s performance
as a man who both likes himself too much and doesn’t like himself at
all, a dirty fighter who is somehow always on the outside of his own
life and career.
There comes a point in Chuck where Wepner visits his brother
(Michael Rapaport) because he has no one else to share his excitement
with after Rocky wins some Oscars, and it becomes apparent that Wepner
hasn’t seen him in a while and can’t even quite remember how many kids
he has. This could be chalked up to too many blows to the head, but
Chuck presents this as evidence that Wepner has kept his own family at
arm’s length in order to chase after drugs, women, and fame.
“There’s more to you than meets the eye, Chuck Wepner,” says Linda
(Naomi Watts), a Jersey bartender who will eventually become his second
wife. “Not much, but just enough,” she says, and the same might be said
of Chuck itself, which dutifully allows Schreiber to show off his
skill as an actor while making us question the need for a narrative
movie about Wepner, who is seen in the last shot amiably strolling along
the beach with the real-life Linda.
Chuck takes a small subject and turns it into a basic redemption
story, and as such it has some merit. Not much, but just enough.