Independent Film Festival of Boston 2017: Chuck, by Sarah Brinks
You know subject of the film Chuck, Chuck Wepner, even if you have never heard of him. He’s the real-life inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. Wepner went fifteen rounds with Muhammad Ali in 1975 and is a local legend in Bayonne, New Jersey. I am on the record for not liking boxing movies… but I think I should be more accurate and simply say I don’t like boxing. The few boxing scenes in the film were certainly my least favorite but more interestingly, Chuck is the story of the rise and fall of a local sports celebrity.
Chuck establishes a firm starting point for Chuck so we can see how far he actually falls. In the beginning of the film he is happily married to his wife Phyliss played by Elizabeth Moss and they have a beautiful daughter. Chuck sells liquor to local bars and boxes on the side. He is beloved in the community and he has earned the nickname “The Bleeder of Bayonne” because he tends to bleed a lot when he is cut in the ring and he can take a punch. He gets his big break when he fights Ali and he manages to hold on for fifteen rounds.
When Rocky is released he gets a lot of recognition as its inspiration from his community. Eventually Chuck’s minor celebrity goes to his head and he gets really into booze and cocaine. His wife leaves him and takes their daughter with her. Chuck’s career never gets any better than the Ali fight and he descends into drugs and alcoholism. He does meet Sylvester Stallone and even gets to audition for a small part in Rocky 2, but he can’t pull it together. He gets caught in a drug sting and goes to jail for a couple years before he is released for good behavior. He gets together with his bartender crush Linda, played by Naomi Watts, and they find happiness together.
The performances in the film are all around really strong. Liev Schreiber plays Chuck and he harnesses the right blend of charisma and intensity for the part. Elizabeth Moss knocks it out of the park in every scene she is in. She makes Phyliss sympathetic without ever making her too hard or too pathetic. One scene in particular when she is at her very best is when she catches Chuck chatting up a girl at a diner and she joins them in the booth and tells off both the girl and Chuck in a calm but pointed way.
There are also two major “celebrity impressions” in the film with Pooch Hall as Muhammad Ali and Morgan Spector as Sylvester Stallone. Hall looks a little bit like Ali but never does a convincing impression of him. He lacks the swagger and poetry of Ali and feels more like a body double. Spector however gives a fantastic performance as Stallone. He has the look but more than that he has the voice, intonation and charm of a young Stallone. I think Spector might be an actor to keep an eye on, he was captivating in every scene and he was a very welcome presence anytime he appeared.
Chuck is well made and completely committed to the 1970s look. The costumes, cars, props, and set design were all period appropriate and the details were impressive for a small and lower budget film. One thing that through me off were that many of the exterior shots and the news/sport footage was vintage film from the 1970’s cut in with the modern shots and it was a little jarring on the big screen. I wish they had either completely committed to the gritty 1970’s look of the historical footage or reshot it with their cast so there wasn’t the obvious jump from one to the other.
As I mentioned, the boxing scenes were my least favorite because I hate how violent and gross boxing is but they were competently shot and really show the brutality of the sport. Schreiber’s voice over was helpful in letting you know what was going on in his head as he fought the best in the world and also what he thought as his life got progressively worse. I did find the prosthetics on Schreiber a little distracting, it did make him look more like Wepner but I don’t know that it was necessary. They thinned out Schreiber’s hair and gave him a big nose and cheeks and of course a big ‘70’s mustache. He did look like he had spent a lifetime getting punched in the face.
Chuck is a solid addition to the boxing movie subgenre. It, of course, borrows some imagery and tropes from previous films but it tells a complete and compelling story with very strong performances. If you were ever curious about the real-life Rocky Balboa, Chuck is certain to entertain and educate you.