Watching “Chuck” is like striking up a conversation with a stranger on the barstool next to you, and discovering that your new drinking buddy is a far more interesting fellow than he first appeared.
Philippe Falardeau’s movie, which opens today at AMC Madison 6, is an engaging study of an ordinary guy, small-time New Jersey boxer Chuck Wepner, who inadvertently became a minor celebrity and was almost destroyed by fame. Unlike the beefy, plodding Wepner in the ring, “Chuck” is fleet-footed and skilled, helped enormously by Liev Schreiber’s funny and empathetic performance as Wepner.
The film largely lets Wepner tell his own story via voiceover, a very smart movie. A boxer in the 1970s, Wepner was dubbed the Bayonne Bleeder for his ability to take punishment in the ring and still stay standing. In one fight, he describes his strategy thusly: “I couldn’t hit him. I figured I’d wear him down with my face.” After every bout, Wepner comes home puffy-faced and bleeding to his doting wife (Elisabeth Moss).
Through a strange set of circumstances, Wepner’s manager (Ron Perlman) gets him a shot at the title against Muhammad Ali in 1975. The fight is seen as a cakewalk for Ali (news reports barely even mentioned Wepner’s name), but Wepner went all 15 rounds, even knocking down the Champ in the ninth.
He lost, of course, which is why you’ve probably never heard of Chuck Wepner. But the fight inspired a young actor named Sylvester Stallone to write a movie about a blue-collar boxer who gets a shot at the big time. That movie you’ve probably heard of — “Rocky.”
As the “real Rocky,” Wepner suddenly finds himself with a small amount of celebrity, enough that he never has to pay for a drink (or a line of cocaine) in a New Jersey bar, and he seems to have an endless supply of floozies at his disposal. He can’t handle the spotlight, and his attempts at chasing more fame cost him his wife and his boxing career. Wepner’s rise and fall is fast and furious, with redemption coming slowly as the result of a two-year prison stint and the devotion of a second wife (Naomi Watts).
“Chuck” is a lot of fun to watch, especially how Falardeau (“Monsieur Lazhar”) mixes archival and recreated footage (along with a killer AM-radio soundtrack that outdoes “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) to make us feel like we’re back in the ‘70s in all its beige glory. The film does lose a little gas in the third act, when Wepner’s life is in tatters.
But the film succeeds mainly on Schreiber’s endearing performance as Wepner, a working-class jabroni who is a heck of a raconteur. Wepner says in the film that he always wanted to be remember as a “guy who could take a punch.” He took a big one on the chin in his life, and he’s still standing.