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Miles Teller steps up in boxing drama 'Bleed for This'

Miles Teller, Katey Sagal and Aaron Eckhart star in "Bleed For This."

No flatfoot, no knockout, writer-director Ben Younger's "Bleed for This" wins on points.

Miles Teller stars as Vinny Pazienza, later known as Vinny Paz, also known as the Pazmanian Devil. The fighter, a working-class Rhode Island hero, held world titles in three weight classes: lightweight, junior middleweight and super middleweight.

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Teller seizes the day; the actor, best known for "Whiplash" and for not getting the Ryan Gosling role in "La La Land," is now free at last from playing second-dystopian-wiseacre-on-the-right in the "Divergent" series. He's happy to be playing Pazienza; you can tell. He's sparring with a variety of good actors, all across the spectrum from "subtle" to "hambone," and he responds to the physical and emotional demands of the role.

There'd be no story without the near-fatal setback arriving at the end of the script's first act. In 1991, not long after pounding Gilbert Delé at the Civic Center in Providence, R.I., to win the junior middleweight title, Pazienza was in a head-on car crash, leaving him with two broken vertebrae and another dislocated vertebrae. The doctors said he'd be lucky to walk again, let alone box.

"Bleed for This" depicts the boxer's lengthy recuperation as he copes with a spine-stabilizing metal brace called a halo bolted into his skull. For months he trains in secret in his parents' basement, eyeing what few others could see: the resumption of a career generally not considered a safe bet for guys with broken necks.

His trainer, Kevin Rooney, believed in his fighter's self-determination. Aaron Eckhart, with very little hair and a waistline tailor-made for Reagan-era Sansabelt slacks, chews it up nice in the key supporting turn. He's a mentor, Pazienza's conscience and a fellow wash-up looking for redemption.

Director Younger's earlier features were "Boiler Room" (2000) and "Prime" (2005). His new movie, shot for $6 million in familiar, faux-doc shaky-cam style, may not get all its actors into the same performance ring. But it's fun seeing how they duke it out stylistically.

In this corner: the marvelous Belfast-born Ciarán Hinds as Vinny's loving, swaggering father, giving the role 250% — 125% "reality," 125% pure Hollywood corn. And in that corner: a barely recognizable and thoroughly remarkable Ted Levine as manager Lou Duva, dry and tight-lipped to the point of comical stoicism. It's my favorite performance in the movie, though Teller makes the most of every scene. Katey Sagal as Pazienza's perpetually praying mother, too nervous to watch his fights on TV, suggests in a few thinly written exchanges a life lived in the background of the noisy men in her life.

Truth-wise "Bleed for This" is all over the place. It swaps Pazienza's real comeback-of-a-life bout (against Luis Santana) for a different fight (against Roberto Duran, the Panamanian recently subjected to his own biopic, "Hands of Stone"). Younger's not interested in anything that might risk audience discomfort with the protagonist. So don't expect miracles. Not every biopic needs to reinvent the form. Sometimes it's enough to inhabit it, engagingly.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

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'Bleed for This'

MPAA rating: R, for language, sexuality/nudity and some accident images

Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes

Playing: In general release

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