Howard Hawks defined a great movie as a movie with three great scenes and no bad ones. Phillip Faladreau’s Chuck has at least three great scenes.
Chuck tells the story of Chuck Wepner a boxer from Bayonne, New Jersey. His nickname is “The Bayonne Bleeder” much to his chagrin. He’s also the inspiration of Sylvester’s Stallone’s Rocky.
Since Chuck is the inspiration for the now infamous Stallone franchise, there are more than a few parallels. Faladreau , however, is clearly an acolyte of Martin Scorsese. The movie drips of the seventies with its dim lighting, dull color scheme, and plaid pants. But there’s a sense of sadness, and a drive for love and redemption one typically finds in Scorsese movies, not to mention the joyous use of the camera.
Chuck (Liev Schreiber) is not driven by inner demons, so much as insecurities, and the aching desire to be respected and loved. He cheats on his wife. He brags about his accomplishments to strangers. The most powerful moments come from Chuck’s attempt to be accepted by those he believes to be better.
Schreiber is a great actor who has turned in many great performances. Schreiber’s Chuck is a lovable loser who could have been somebody if not for his own foibles and flaws. He says the wrong thing, does the wrong thing, and he always realizes his mistake just a few seconds too late, sometimes longer.
His performance is so great because of its effortlessness. He disappears behind the Jersey accent and seventies mustache. He plays Chuck as a man who fundamentally is a good man who gets lost along the way. There’s a scene early on when Chuck is talking to his trainer Al (Ron Pearlman) about a fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali (Pooch Hall). Al purposely mispronounces Ali’s name, but Chuck corrects him. Chuck isn’t ‘woke, he’s a white hetero male of the 1970’s after all,’ but he does realize the power of people not calling you by your name. He is ‘The Bayonne Bleeder” after all.
At one point Chuck is offered a role in Rocky Two by Sylvester Stallone (Morgan Spector) himself. Chuck is beyond excited. The night before he’s scheduled to audition he parties with two random women and his best friend John (Jim Gaffigan). The next morning the four race to meet Stallone as Chuck snorts more and more cocaine.
The audition scene is heartbreaking. Chuck’s desire to land the part, Stallone’s respect for Chuck as he tries to coach him through the audition, and the producers who sit there judging it all impassively. Stallone knows Chuck is high and he’s a little pissed that Chuck would sabotage himself like this.
He sabotages his marriage with Phyliss (Elizabeth Moss). When she finally kicks him out of the house, we breathe a sigh of relief. She doesn’t deserve Chuck’s treatment, no one does. One of the many pleasures of the film is the way it allows us to empathize with Chuck without asking us to like him all the time or even forgive him.
During the day he sells liquor to bars, and one day he meets Linda (Naomi Watts). There’s an instant connection between the two. They’re both a Pisces, they both love the television movie written by Rod Serling and starring Anthony Quinn, Requiem For A Heavyweight. Linda is brash, defiant, and smitten with the big lug. We root for the two while silently hoping Chuck gets his act together before sabotaging this relationship, But Linda beats us to the punch she pushes Chuck away. “You’re married. Go home.”
Faladreau takes what could have been a dour overly wrought depressing melodrama and instead gives us a funny, heartfelt movie about a loser struggling for redemption. Faladreau and his cameraman Nicolas Bolduc have infused Chuck with a sense of cinematic play. Movies about redemption are rarely this fun and exciting.
His use of music is nothing short of refreshing. Unlike most movies of today where the music telegraphs the filmmakers intentions, here it’s used for layering. When Chuck finally starts to put his life together enough for Linda to give in and date him, the two kiss as “You Always Hurt The One You Love” plays. This isn’t a pretentious portent of things to come for their relationship. Nor is it just a nice choice for romantic music. It’s Chuck realizing once, and for all, he’s to blame for the pain he’s caused the ones he’s loved, and that includes himself.
Chuck relies too much on voice-over, and some scenes tend to go on just a tad too long. Faladreau and company might be a little too in love with Requiem For A Heavyweight, as they cut to scenes from the movie from time to time. Still, I’m not sure if all of this is enough to stamp down the greatness in the film.
As the credits roll, I found myself smiling. We live in an era where Hollywood makes movies about impossible heroes doing impossible things. Here’s a movie about Chuck Wepner “The Bayonne Bleeder”. He fought Muhammad Ali for the Heavyweight Championship of the world. Whatever else you may say about him you can’t take that away from him.