American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Bleed for This" starts out like a traditional underdog-fighter-makes-good flick, based on a true story, pivots and becomes something else, then goes back to being traditional.
Miles Teller plays Vinny Paz, aka Pazienza, aka The Pazmanian Devil, an Italian-American junior welterweight fighter from Rhode Island. He's a likable, young, working class guy who doesn't take the sport as seriously as he should. He barely makes weight and stays out all night before fights blowing his money on gambling. His domineering dad (Ciaran Hinds) hooks him up with legendary trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), one of the wizards who helped channel Mike Tyson's rage. It's Rooney who recommends that Paz move up one weight class, a bold move. Everyone else in Paz's circle (including his manager Lou Duva, played by gravel-voiced character actor Ted Levine, who's never looked worse or more weirdly compelling) thinks it's a bad idea. But it turns out to be a stroke of genius. Paz becomes not just a winner but a sensation, beating champ Roberto Duran (Edwin Rodriguez, radiating intelligence and focus) and priming himself for stardom.
Then he gets blindsided by life: a car slams into him head-on as he's driving to the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut and throws his vehicle into a ditch. His spine is damaged. He has to wear a "halo" to keep his head upright; it sits on his shoulders like scaffolding, but despite the theologically loaded name of the device, director Ben Younger ("Boiler Room") and cinematographer Larkin Seiple restrain themselves from playing up the Christ-crucified parallels that are sure to form in viewers' minds. The doctor tells him not only will he never fight again, he'll probably never walk again. Undaunted, Paz charms Rooney into undertaking a secret training regimen in his parents' basement, and the film becomes a recovery story. The emphasis is mainly on what the injury does to Paz's body, and how he manages and transcends the pain: a mind-over-matter narrative.
The problem, though, is that we never get enough sense of Paz's interior life to judge this movie as anything other than a comeback story about a nice guy who got knocked out by the cosmos and hauled himself up. Its modesty is welcome, and its deep knowledge of boxing pictures and sports weepies helps the story glide along. Still, there's a deeper, more powerful tale here that remains frustratingly untapped, maybe because the film knows that if it got too messy, contradictory or raw, it would lose the "inspirational" label and become art.