In 1975, Bayonne, New Jersey resident Chuck Wepner nearly went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title. Wepner had been in the heavyweight circuits for a while, and could take a hellacious beating, coming to be known as the Bayonne Bleeder, but his bout with Ali was a stunt situated around race. Ali was one of the most famous black men in the world and Wepner was a white nobody, as white guys were then in short supply in the heavyweights. Wepner lost by TKO in the last few seconds of the final round, but this is a case of losing as winning, as he turned a sideshow event into a testament of pride and will. It’s a fascinating story—so fascinating, in fact, that it inspired one of the most famous of all American films: Rocky.
The challenge facing a film telling the story of Wepner’s life, then, is to not scan as a half-hearted copy of Rocky. And it’s evident from its opening frames that Philippe Falardeau’s Chuck isn’t trying to mine that tonal terrain; instead, the film revels in the American Hustle style of 1970s drugs and disco drag, leaning heavy on facial hair, fake fur, endless variations of the colors brown and beige, Top 40 hits, and the feathery hair, long legs, and beautiful asses of a rotating procession of nightclub women. Of course cocaine creeps into the narrative, because a film like this has never not featured a coke binge.
Like its protagonist, Philippe Falardeau’s film gets lost in a haze of incidental cacophony.
If Chuck goes down easily, it’s because the excess associated with the hedonistic myth of the American 1970s is appealingly disreputable, particularly for hetero men, and because the film practices a kind of de-emphasis that’s unusual for sports and crime films. The significant known conflicts of Chuck’s (Liev Schreiber) life are rushed through and barely glanced over by Falardeau. We barely see Chuck training for his fight with Ali (Pooch Hall), which is restaged in gory detail but presented as simply one of several climaxes. We also wouldn’t know from this film that Chuck actually sued Sylvester Stallone (Morgan Spector) for utilizing his life story, and that the two came to unknown terms. And when Chuck goes to prison near the end of the film for selling drugs, he and the filmmakers take it in stride, essentially shrugging their arms in a gesture of “what’re you gonna do?”
Sports and crime films are often so hysterical that this lackadaisical approach to narrative is a relief—at the cost of dramatic immediacy. One comes to wonder how a story so rich in incident can be so wispy and inconsequential. The actors compensate to a great degree—particularly Schreiber, as well as Elisabeth Moss and Naomi Watts as Chuck’s two wives, who invest their characters with a vividness and physical specificity that Falardeau doesn’t seem to know how to handle. Each actorly moment is entertaining and occasionally even resonant, but there’s little sense of there being a conductor in front of the orchestra, assembling the elements into a functional whole.
There’s a lovely scene between Schreiber and Moss in a woman’s changing room, where Chuck talks to his first wife, Phyllis, as she tries on clothes. Such a scene could be creepily patriarchal, but Chuck’s understood to be taking refuge in Phyllis, sheltering himself from the outside world. He loves and depends on her, which exist on a separate plane, to him, from his womanizing. Moments like this suggest that Chuck does indeed have something to offer the various genres on which it’s riffing, but ambition eludes it. Like its protagonist, the film gets lost in a haze of incidental cacophony.