CHUCK: Another Requiem For A Heavyweight
Chuck is the story of boxing legend Chuck Wepner, yet never quite manages to match the outsized metaphoric grandeur of the film it inspired.
Everyone knows about Rocky. Even if you’ve never seen the Oscar winning Best Picture winner, chances are you’re familiar with more than a few aspects of the long-running feature franchise. Created by Sylvester Stallone as a vehicle for the up-and-coming American actor to make a name for himself, the film has since gone down as one of the most significant sports films of all time – second only to the Martin Scorsese classic Raging Bull from just four years later in 1980. Since its initial release in 1976, Rocky has gone on to become a Hollywood masterpiece of the late 20th century.
Followed by five subsequent installments starring Stallone as the eponymous “Italian Stallion” – including the Oscar nominated 2015 spin-off sequel Creed – Rocky is an undisputed classic of the sport film genre. Continuing in that legacy, Chuck sees Liev Schreiber don the mantle of real life heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner whose 1975 fight with former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali put the formerly mentioned Bayonne, NJ native on the map – and subsequently in the eyes of rising actor and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone.
Based on an original screenplay drafted by Schreiber and Ray Donovan co-star Michael Cristofer – with an additional pass provided by best-selling novelist Jerry Stahl and countercultural documentarian Jeff Feuerzeig – Chuck attempts to ground the biographical narrative of Wepner’s life into a cinematic ode to the kind of melodramatic morality play that Rocky simultaneously became on the world stage. Ultimately, the “Bayonne Bleeder” never quite managed to match the outsized metaphoric grandeur of the “Italian Stallion”, though in its best moments, Chuck is a more than a worthwhile footnote to the continuing cultural significance still enjoyed by Rocky.
The “Bayonne Bleeder” vs. the “Italian Stallion”
Peppered throughout Chuck, director Phillipe Falardeau makes several passing references to the importance of the 1962 boxing drama Requiem for a Heavyweight. Starring Anthony Quinn as the fictional fighter Louis “Mountain” Rivera, the Ralph Nelson directed drama began as a live television show in 1956. Adapted for the silver screen from the original teleplay penned by Rod Sterling, the movie plays an important part in the life of Chuck Wepner as depicted in the Falardeau film. Serving as a strange form of wish fulfillment, Wepner sees himself as the “Mountain” of Bayonne, NJ, granting him the aspiration towards the celebrity that he would later achieve secondhand following the theatrical release of Rocky in 1976.
Based in some small part on the Wepner fight against then current heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali from 1975, Rocky would come out a year later bearing more than a few passing resemblances to the life and times of the “Bayonne Bleeder.” In Chuck, Schreiber as Wepner attends a local screening of the aforementioned drama, and is greeted by adoring fans who assume that he had some direct involvement in the making of the new film.
From there, Chuck turns into a psychological Rorschach test simultaneously refelecting the real-life ambition and narrative delusion that drives Wepner as both a person in the real world and a cinematic protagonist in Falardeau‘s film. Gripped by the larger-then-life opulence of the modicum of celebrity that he enjoys at home – in addition to several brief opening flirtations with a failed working relationship with Stallone – Wepner quickly spins out of control into sexual promiscuity, drug addiction, and criminal incarceration.
Chuck co-writers Stahl and Feuerzeig are no strangers to depicting lives lived on the edge, and their latest examination into the life of Chuck Wepner provides for another mad-cap adventure into hedonistic delirium. Possessed by the idea that he won the acclaim and accolades lauded onto Rocky at the 1977 Academy Awards ceremony by proxy, Schreiber plays Wepner as a tragic fool. His plight towards worldwide recognition is immediately tinged with an unexamined melancholy that inherently works against his own self-assured swagger.
But unlike his adopted cinematic doppelgänger in Rocky, Wepner finds himself taking part in a string of vanity matches as a local legend of prurient repute. Far from being a worldwide icon of cinematic celebrity, Schreiber plays the “Bayonne Bleeder” off as the anti-hero he subconsciously saw himself as becoming through his professed love for films like Requiem for a Heavyweight.
Creed will likely go down as the true cinematic successor to its forebear and thematic predecessor that is Rocky, leaving Chuck to remain as a mildly peculiar footnote to the legacy of the aforementioned feature franchise. Chuck Wepner is not a name nearly as eponymously celebrated as Rocky Balboa, even though the “Italian Stallion” was based in part on the “Bayonne Bleeder.” In the role of the latter mentioned heavyweight contender, Schreiber manages to bring a wounded narcissism to the role that serves to celebrate the legacy of the untold fighter who inspired the making of the former make-believe movie hero.
Chuck Wepner, for all of his purported bluster and bruising gravitas in the boxing ring of yesteryear, will likely remain a regional folk hero whose likeness in Chuck will be recognized to a fairly exclusive audience. But given the way in which films like Rocky and its own theatrical predecessor Requiem for a Heavyweight play into the fabric of Falardeau‘s film, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. In much the same way that Wepner is able to identify with the melodrama of the boxing drama, Chuck subtly nods towards the ephemera of such idle daydreams and the idealistic repercussions of said self-obsessions.
Are you a fan of the Rocky feature franchise? If so, are you also aware of its real-life inspiration Chuck Wepner, also known as the “Bayonne Bleeder”? Tell us in the comments below!
Chuck saw theatrical release in the U.S. on May 5, 2017. For international release dates, see here.
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.