Chuck  (2017)    IFC Films/Drama    RT: 98 minutes    Rated R (language throughout, drug use, sexuality, nudity, some bloody images)    Director: Philippe Falardeau    Screenplay: Jeff Feuerzeig and Jerry Stahl    Music: Corey Allen Jackson    Cinematography: Nicolas Bolduc    Release date: May 12, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Elisabeth Moss, Ron Perlman, Jim Gaffigan, Michael Rapaport, Sadie Sink, Megan Sikora, Jason Jones, Pooch Hall, Morgan Spector, Kelvin Hale.



 In the 1976 movie Rocky, the titular boxer played by Sylvester Stallone lost the big match but gained the respect of the public who admired his tenacity for going the distance. His fame extended to five sequels and one spin-off movie (2015’s Creed). He even ended the Cold War at one point. In real life, “the real Rocky” (so he claims) didn’t have so happy an ending. Chuck Wepner, aka “The Bayonne Bleeder” was famous for 15 minutes after lasting nearly 15 rounds against heavyweight champ Muhammed Ali (he missed it by 19 seconds) in 1975. He became famous for another 15 minutes when Rocky came out and won the hearts of audiences as well as three Oscars including Best Picture. Wepner claims to be Stallone’s inspiration for the 1976 movie even though the actor, who also wrote the script, denies it. It eventually resulted in lawsuit between the two men that was ultimately settled for an undisclosed amount.

Chuck-2017 Wepner’s story (most of it, anyway) makes its way to the big screen in Chuck, a mostly good biopic of a tragic hero whose desire for fame and recognition came at a hefty price. Wepner (Schreiber, Spotlight) was once the heavyweight champ of New Jersey but those days are nearly behind him. That is, until he’s offered a shot at the title against Ali. He loses but becomes a celebrity because he went the distance (almost). Then Rocky comes out and Wepner goes around telling everybody that he’s “the real Rocky”. Suddenly, he’s a local hero again. He engages in a hard-partying lifestyle of women and cocaine. It costs him his marriage to Phyllis (Moss, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale) which was already on shaky ground due to his womanizing. It also cost him his freedom when he was arrested for dealing coke (he did a little over 2 years).

 Chuck has a narrative similar to Goodfellas with its rise-and-fall arc and reliance on voiceover by the main character who does sound a lot like Ray Liotta’s character from the 1990 Scorsese masterpiece. Sad to say, Chuck isn’t exactly a masterpiece. It has many good qualities but also a few good-sized flaws. Director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) follows Scorsese’s template a bit too closely right down to his use of pop music to drive key scenes. There seem to be many narrative gaps. They never once mention the lawsuit. About midway through, I was no longer sure what year the action was taking place in. For example, it’s indicated that Wepner’s arrest occurred in the very early 80s. In reality, it happened in ’85 and he was formally sentenced in ’88. Non-boxing fans (like me) wouldn’t know the timeline. I only figured it out when Stallone (played pitch-perfect by Morgan Spector of The Drop) showed up at the prison to shoot scenes from 1989’s Lock Up. I wish Falardeau had clarified this aspect of Chuck a little better.

 On the other hand, the director captures the time period perfectly. He presents the era of disco in all its hedonistic glory replete with polyester shirts and gold jewelry. As Wepner, Schreiber turns in a great performance. He depicts the club fighter as a braggart who uses his larger-than-life persona as a façade to mask his insecurities. He doesn’t want to be seen as a joke (even though sometimes he is) so he overcompensates by being the loudest person in the room. He’s so used to people worshipping him that he’s taken aback when barmaid Linda (Watts, The Impossible) rejects his advances. Of course, like every self-aggrandizing male, he wants what he cannot have. How can he possibly not want to get with a woman who’s familiar with Requiem for a Heavyweight (his all-time favorite movie)? Both Watts and Moss turn in fantastic performances. One of the film’s key moments is when Phyllis tells her future ex that he has to move out of their house. No tears or melodrama on her part. She’s simply had enough AND doesn’t want their young daughter exposed to his vices. Ron Perlman (Hellboy) is almost unrecognizable as Wepner’s manager/trainer. These characters are fully realized. Others, like Chuck’s estranged brother John (Rapaport, Cop Land), are kind of half-assed.

 Some scenes in Chuck are difficult to watch like his epic fail of an audition for a small part in Rocky II. He shows up late, coked out of his mind. You can see Stallone’s admiration for the fighter turning to pity and disgust. Others, like a staged match against wrestler Andre the Giant (which obviously inspired the Hulk Hogan scene in Rocky III), provide a little insight into scenes from subsequent Rocky movies. For the most part, Chuck is a good movie. It’s consistently compelling. It has a raw, gritty feel that perfectly suits the story. It makes a nice companion piece to the original Rocky. It’s worth seeing. 

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