Friday, November 17, 2017
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'Chuck' tells the story of what happened to Chuck Wepner, boxer who inspired 'Rocky'

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Chuck Wepner was a tomato can, a heavyweight boxer who practically bled at the opening bell. The pride of Bayonne, N.J., could really take a punch as he proved time after hemorrhaging time.

You probably know Wepner better as Rocky Balboa.

That's because Sylvester Stallone was among millions in 1975 watching the underdog Wepner take Muhammad Ali into the 15th round of a heavyweight championship title fight. Plucked from obscurity to give Ali an easy title defense, Wepner's refusal to quit inspired Stallone to write an iconic movie.

Which makes the biopic Chuck more than just another boxing movie. The Ali pinnacle occurs early, the only Wepner fight given much attention except his novelty bouts with Andre the Giant and the bear from Paint Your Wagon. No, this isn't Rocky VIII.

Chuck is a character study of fleeting fame in prolonged decline, anchored by Liev Schreiber's brutish charisma in the title role. Nearly beating Ali also led Wepner to a cocaine habit that coupled with numerous infidelities ruined his life. Being the real Rocky didn't earn Wepner a dime, only loaned him extra spotlight time.

Despite such heavy issues, director Philippe Falardeau keeps Chuck lighter on its feet than its hero. One reason is the 1970s setting and a soundtrack littered with disco hits, lending a Boogie Nights buoyancy to Wepner's lurid instincts. Mainly it's Schreiber leading a plum cast in telling a heck of a story, an underbelly slice of American Dream that the late Jonathan Demme would appreciate.

Absorbing Wepner's most intimate blows is his wife, Phyllis (Elisabeth Moss), too fed up with her husband's flaws to just enjoy the ride. Moss' confrontation in a diner of Wepner's latest flirtation is the movie's best-written scene. Ron Perlman is solid as Wepner's manager-trainer Al Braverman while Jim Gaffigan plays well against type as the boxer's enabling one-man entourage. Naomi Watts' sassy bartender grows on Wepner and us.

A couple of supporting actors are only asked for capable impersonations: Pooch Hall as Ali and Morgan Spector as Stallone, to whom Wepner reaches out, not for money necessarily but validation. Bayonne is a small town. Wepner won't remain a big shot while every reason for being one slips away.

Chuck wisely focuses on that tragic "whatever happened to" angle, the fall Rocky Balboa never endured. Like Wepner's favorite movie, Chuck is a requiem for a heavyweight, a palooka with nothing left but pride.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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