It’s a timeless story, an aging boxer with not much to show for a career of stopping fists with his face finally gets a shot to leave his mark on the sport to which he’s sacrificed both years and neurons. Liz Schreiber stars as Chuck Wepner, a local hero of the ring from Bayonne New Jersey, in the self-titled Chuck and latest from Canadian director Philippe Falardeau.
Through some early flashbacks we learn that Chuck has never been that great at too many things, except one. Taking a punch. Crafting a career out of this ability, Chuck has become somewhat of a local boxing hero. However, even though he has managed to earn some distinction in the ring, at one point ranked in the top ten of his weight class, Chuck’s never gotten the opportunity to compete in the sport’s main event, the heavyweight title. All this changes when Don King calls up one day and offers Chuck a title shot with reigning heavy weight champion of the world Mohammad Ali. Suddenly ripped from his humble New Jersey life and placed front and center on a global stage, Chuck must now train for the fight of his life. Knowing that he is vastly outmatched Chuck only hopes for one thing, not to win but to simply go the distance.
Sound familiar? Well it should as this story has already been told in the 1976 classic Rocky, which was based (in part) on real life boxer Chuck Wepner. Rocky, or more particularly the phenomenon and events surrounding the release of the Oscar winning film, play heavily into the plot of Chuck setting up a counterpoint of sorts between fantasy and reality. Whereas the naive Rocky Balboa sought little less than to prove his worth and earn the love of his cherished Adrienne which resulted in an inspiring tale, Chuck comes across as a sort of bizzaro-Rocky being a prisoner to his vices and a little to concerned with self image. An adulterous man, Chuck continuously pushes his wife Phyliss (Elizabeth Moss) and subsequently daughter away through his extra-curricular activities. After achieving a rise in fame, earned from the title match, and soon after hearing that the newest Hollywood sensation was based on his life Chuck’s ego begins to soar. This leads him into the world of cocaine, which fuels his adulteries and pushes his family away even further.
The juxtaposition between fantasy and reality is an interesting concept here, however, it is not enough to anchor the film (admittedly Chuck doesn’t attempt to solely build itself around this device). Ultimately, Chuck falters on a dramatic level. Much of Chuck’s narrative is devoted to the struggles between Chuck and Phyliss. Schreiber plays Wepner as a lovable goon, quite superbly, but we are shown almost immediately into the runtime, long before the call from Don King, that Chuck cheats on his wife. This begins the rift between the two and sets up an on-again-off-again dynamic. Prior to this character reveal we have only seen Chuck and Phyliss together on screen once during a brief scene. By failing to properly set up this marital relationship, not as much weight is attributed to the film’s major conflict as would have been otherwise.
So what’s the consensus on Chuck? Well, if you ever wanted to see a Rocky movie where Balboa was a womanizer and developed a cocaine habit you should probably check this one out. However, if you’re in the mood for a well constructed and captivating boxing piece, you may just want to dust off that DVD or sign into Netflix and visit your old friend the Italian Stallion instead.
Entract Films and Remstar Films releases Chuck on Friday, May 19, 2017