Do you follow boxing?
Did you see "Rocky?"
The first words of the theatrical trailer for the upcoming movie, "Chuck," are really all you need to know. If you're a fan of boxing, chances are you've heard the name Chuck Wepner.
Wepner was a boxer in the 1970s, who once was the world's number one ranked contender. In 1975, he went 15 rounds in a heavyweight title fight against the great Muhammad Ali, before fading into relative boxing oblivion following the success of that fight.
Fight fans know Wepner as "The Bayonne Bleeder," a man who could take a punch like nobody else as his rough, unpolished, "street style" technique led opposing boxers to call him "dirty," and "a survivor."
If you still don't know Chuck Wepner, chances are you're familiar with his alias: Rocky Balboa.
That's right, Wepner's epic 15-round fight with Ali became the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone's succesful Rocky franchise.
There's been a lot of boxing movies recently, including Stallone's new spinoff "Creed," about the son of archrival Apollo Creed. Often times the trap in these boxing movies and biopics in general, is that as predictable as they are, they rarely show the punches taken by these larger than life characters outside the ring.
As any athlete understands, the highs and lows felt during competition, pale in comparison to the highs and lows of life. The same can be said for the life of Chuck Wepner.
Certainly "Chuck," which stars Liev Schreiber of "Ray Donovan" fame, and opens Friday, May 5th, in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles, has plenty of in-the-ring boxing action, but it's the punches Chuck takes outside the ring that are what truly fuel this film.
"We don't fall into that trap," joked Schreiber when asked by NBC LA reporter Michael Duarte if the real life Chuck Wepner was uncomfortable with the telling of any parts of his story. "Chuck's a very open guy. He wants people to know who he is. We had no problem with that. The harder aspects of his story, are what makes it like a fight. It's our ability as human beings to persevere and to come through something like that, that makes us so special. Boxing is a microcosm of life, to make your way through 15 rounds of a prize fight, you've been through something profound."
The most profound discovery that came from Wepner's 15 rounds with Ali, was the fame that followed. The notoriety that comes from knocking down the greatest heavyweight champion of all time, and subsequently, the stardom that follows after they make an Oscar-winning movie about your life.
What's interesting about Wepner's underdog story in the film, is not the 15 rounds he goes toe-to-toe with Ali, played by real-life boxer, Pooch Hall, but the 15 rounds of life that Wepner experiences outside the ring.
After Wepner's fight with Ali, "Chuck," which was directed by Phillppe Falardeau, paints the picture of what followed. As Wepener rises to fame, he spends his days and nights partying on the Jersey Shore until his escapades eventually lead to the exit of his wife Phyllis, played by Elisabeth Moss of "Mad Men" fame, and his daughter.
Wepner enjoys alcohol, cocaine, and women, but his real life drug was fame, a harsh reality that the film is not afraid to shy away from. In order to keep his name in the headlines, Wepner does anything to stay relevant, including fighting Andre the Giant, and a grizzly bear.
As Wepner's life continues to spiral out of control, he's given a lifeline by Stallone who asks Wepner to audition for his "Rocky" sequel, "Rocky II." Instead of rehearsing his lines and preparing for the audition, Wepner parties with his best friend John (Jim Gaffigan), and goes skinny-dipping with women as they run "other lines."
Of course, Wepner shows up extremely late to the audition, high as a kite, and reeking of booze. Predictably, he struggles to get through the scene with Stallone, and as you can expect, doesn't get the role. Wepner reaches rock-bottom, and it's in the final act of the film, that a love story with fast-talking bartender, Linda, played by Schreiber's real-life partner, Naomi Watts,begins to blossom, rescuing Wepner from himself.
Schreiber boxes in real life and has been training for the better part of 15 years. He was sent the script for "Chuck," over ten years ago, but it was after a successful stint as Ray Donovan, that Schreiber wanted to make the film as a change of pace.
We're glad he did, as Schreiber is excellent in playing the "Real Life Rocky." Inside the ring, Schreiber took real punches from boxers, including Hall who he spars with on a weekly basis. He admits it wasn't the best idea he's ever had, but it helps make the scenes inside the ring more authentic for the avid fight fan. As Wepener's life ebbs and flows, Schreiber plays it all with a human touch. Portraying Wepner's naivety and charm, even as he burns his life to the ground.
Wepner is flawed, and Schreiber knows that. Neither the actor, nor the real-life legend is afraid to show that, and it's that aspect which makes the film so interesting to watch. If you like sports, boxing, or are just a fan of non-fiction, you'll enjoy this movie. It's not the Ali-Frazier of movies, heck, it isn't even the Rumble in the Jungle, but with a run time of just 98 minutes, it will definitely keep you entertained.
"Chuck," rated R, is playing at the ArcLight in Hollywood with a Q&A with Schreiber this Friday (May 5) and Saturday (May 6). It also is at The Landmark in West L.A. It opens nationwide on May 12th and May 19th.