“Never fight ugly people – they have nothing to lose.”
– Old Boxing Quote, source unknown
The first time I heard the name “Chuck Wepner” was when he sued Sylvester Stallone in 2003. The former boxer had spent the past 2 ½ decades bad-mouthing the Hollywood superstar, claiming the latter made unauthorized use of the former’s life story for the Oscar-winning film Rocky, but never compensated Wepner for it. As Wepner has drifted in-and-out of poverty since the ‘70s, Rocky has spawned six lucrative sequels, one Oscar-nominated spin-off (Creed), and Stallone has become a multi-millionaire. Whenever he’s asked about Wepner’s accusations of theft, he’s quick to respond “[H]e knows the truth and [the film Rocky] had nothing do to do with his ‘personal life’. I even regret the fact that he and Rocky are associated because the two people couldn’t be more diverse.”
In short, these two do not like each other.
That’s what makes the portrayal of their relationship in this film so hard to swallow. From the way it’s shown in Chuck – a film made with the full cooperation of Wepner and his family – Stallone may or may not have used Wepner’s 1975 fight with Muhammad Ali as the basis for the Italian Stallion’s bout with Apollo Creed. What’s more, Sly is shown as just the gosh-darn nicest guy in the world. So nice, in fact, that’s he’s completely in awe of meeting “The real Rocky Balboa,” and even writes a role for him in the film’s sequel. Wepner blows the audition because, through no fault of Stallone’s, he’s a fuck-up.
Believe it or not, the ridiculous apotheosis of Stallone is just one of the film’s many problems.
There’s one thing everyone agrees on when they talk about Chuck Wepner: “That guy could take a punch.” It isn’t long before the New York-born/Jersey-raised kid decides to move from a life of street fights to professional pugilism. By 1974, he’s a married father and regional heavyweight champ, occasionally referred to as “The Bayonne Bleeder”. After the famous “Rumble in the Jungle,” heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali picks Wepner for a match that unexpectedly finds the champ hitting the canvass before scoring a victory.
Wepner’s story proves inspiring. So inspiring, that it seems to have directly influenced a certain critically-acclaimed film seen by he and his wife. Dubbing himself “The Real Rocky,” Wepner begins living high off the fame of a fictional character. But it isn’t long before his own real flaws overshadow any of his real accomplishments.
When we first see Chuck Wepner, he’s fighting a bear. Specifically, Victor the Wrestling Bear, Clint Eastwood’s co-star from Paint Your Wagon. Wepner’s in desperate need of money and isn’t about to turn down a paying bout with someone more famous than he, even one of the ursine variety. We never see any punches thrown, but it’s a great “How did I get here?” opening for a biopic. Or, at least, it would be, if not for the incessant narration from our lead character. Narration is like a song in a musical: it’s supposed to tell us what we can’t figure out on our own from the action on-screen. The creators of Chuck seem to think every moment of their clichéd film needs an overly-detailed disembodied explanation. They couldn’t be more wrong.
When the film isn’t robbing itself of dramatic tension by having Chuck ramble on at us (the Ali fight is actually well-shot and choreographed, but Chuck’s chatter is intolerable), it seems to be going through a checklist of every made-for-tv movie bio: screwing up with the wife; the tearful apology; self-doubt before the big match; being ill-prepared for success; cocaine; even missing an event at the kid’s school – they’re all there. I can’t recommend anyone see Chuck because we’ve all seen it before.
Add to that, the fact that for every on-screen sin placed on Wepner’s head, Stallone is all-but-sainted, and the film is wildly uneven. Of course, it soon becomes clear why Stallone is haloed: the film uses actual Rocky footage. Obviously he wouldn’t sign off on a film that slandered him, so it’s safe to assume that he gave the OK for the Rocky clips in exchange for his being portrayed as nothing less than God’s favorite son. In the producers’ minds, I’m sure it was worth it.
But to the film’s slim credit, what it lacks in an interesting screen story, it tries to make up for in performances. There’s nothing groundbreaking about Liev Schreiber’s down-‘n-out boxer role, and the film seems to acknowledge this by having Wepner’s favorite film be Requiem for a Heavyweight. Still, he makes his skirt-chasing, coke-snorting version of Wepner a semi-likable guy – though I’ll bet that has a lot to do with Schreiber’s additional roles as producer and co-writer. Ron Perlman brings his usual Ron Perlman-ness to the role of Wepner’s manager Al Braverman. Morgan Spector gives a decent impression of Sylvester Stallone, but it takes one out of the film when you’ve already seen the face of the real Stallone in earlier scenes showing the clips from Rocky. I can’t recall having seen Pooch Hall before, but I hope whoever cast him as a charisma-free Muhammad Ali was fired.
But the real star of the film is former Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss as Wepner’s wife, Phyllis. Everytime she’s on screen, the rest of the cast disappears. She takes the worn-out “Jersey girl” trope and injects it with three-dimensional life. For a character meant to be simply “mom-ish,” Moss gives “Phyl” a great deal of intelligence and sex appeal. It gets to the point where you wonder why she’s with a loser like Chuck, so eventually she isn’t. Her replacement is Linda, portrayed by Naomi Watts, Schreiber’s actual wife. Considering that Watts and Schreiber are now divorcing, the sight of them as one another’s true love is painfully awkward to watch.
The life of Chuck Wepner is both interesting and tragicomic, two factors that make for great drama. In the hands of more skilled film-makers – or film-makers with the courage to show a certain vital character (Stallone) in a more realistic light – this could have been an enjoyable film. Unfortunately, the producers here took the easy route and told a story we all know by heart.
The first time I met Spike Lee, I asked him about Michael Mann’s Ali, which Lee was originally going to direct. I’ll never forget his critique of the film: “How could you make such a boring movie about one of the most exciting men the world has ever known?” I wouldn’t call Chuck Wepner one of the world’s most exciting men, but he’s a lot more intriguing than this film lets on.