Chuck ***

Solid boxing biopic about the inspiration for the most famous movie boxer of all time.  

Is it worth $10? Yes  

“You do know me, but you don’t know you know me,” Chuck Wepner (Liev Schreiber) says in the opening narration of “Chuck,” an unconventional boxing biopic that delights in its surprises. The movie is good enough that when it’s over you’ll be glad you spent 98 minutes with Chuck, and will not feel the need to learn more about him. Yes, that’s intended as a backhanded compliment.

The reason we know Chuck already, even though we’ve never heard of him, is because his life story became Sylvester Stallone’s inspiration for “Rocky.” In the mid-‘70s Chuck is a struggling boxer in Bayonne, New Jersey, who works menial jobs while his trainer (Ron Perlman) angles him up the heavyweight ranks. He pays his dues, and when Don King wants “a white guy” for champion Muhammad Ali (Pooch Hall) to beat up on, Chuck, being the only white guy in the top ten, gets a title shot.

If this were a Hollywood movie he might’ve won, but the true story requires director Philippe Falardeau (“The Good Lie”) to tell us Chuck went 15 rounds with Ali, and only nearly won. However, the fight makes Chuck a local celebrity back in Bayonne, and he revels in the attention. The match also captures the imagination of Sylvester Stallone (Morgan Spector), and when “Rocky” becomes a huge hit, Chuck’s celebrity grows. He’s no longer the “Bayonne Bleeder,” a nickname he hates. He’s now the “Real Rocky,” an association he endlessly embraces.

Personally, Chuck is less successful. He’s a neglectful louse who sleeps around on his wife (Elizabeth Moss) and isn’t much of a father to daughter Kimberly (Sadie Sink). A heavy drinker, stubborn and bullish in his demeanor, he later develops a cocaine addiction and has legal trouble. His career may have inspired Rocky, but in reality he’s much more like the other famous big screen pugilist, the “Raging Bull” Jake LaMotta.

The boxing scenes may or may not be faithful recreations of the real fights – I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Chuck takes a beating, we respect and believe in him as a fighter, and his ups and downs are always compelling. To that end, Schreiber’s performance feels impressively authentic and lived-in, unapologetically coarse to great effect. There’s something about Chuck we both always like and always pity, and that’s not an easy dynamic to pull off. Moss is also superb as Chuck’s embattled wife, a woman who acts with reason and understanding with a man who isn’t good enough for her. Credit also to Naomi Watts as Linda, a bartender who takes a liking to Chuck, and Michael Rappaport in a small role as Chuck’s brother.

The actors playing Ali and Stallone (Hall and Spector, respectively) don’t look much like their real-life counterparts, and in a way these impersonations are fitting for a movie about Chuck Wepner. They are, we realize, people whom Chuck would envy from afar but whose company he never truly belonged in. In other words, what we get of them is about all Chuck deserves. As a result, “Chuck” is a fascinating exercise in watching someone under the radar strive for glory but always remain, through no fault but his own, under the radar.

Did you know?
Liev Schreiber knows boxing and for authenticity took real punches during filming.

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