Good boxing movies, as predictable as they may be, understand that as exciting as the punches in the ring are, they’re no match for life’s left hooks and right jabs. What happens on the canvas is often just the externalizing of a striver’s will to survive, fulfill a dream or beat the odds. Or, in the case of “Chuck,” an energetic, modest charmer starring Liev Schreiber as Chuck Wepner, the guy who went the distance with Muhammad Ali and inspired “Rocky,” it’s the loss that becomes a win, until the notoriety it engenders starts to feel like a cut that won’t heal.
Wepner was that ready-made underdog story, a garrulous journeyman known as the Bayonne Bleeder who withstood — and delivered — enough blows to become New Jersey’s heavyweight champion in 1974. Still a liquor salesman by day, Wepner was given his shot at the world title when he was tapped to be Ali’s first opponent after Ali defeated George Foreman in the classic “Rumble in the Jungle.”
Wepner made the most of his opportunity and gave fans a spectacle of endurance. No one expected Ali to get knocked down midmatch, much less need 15 rounds to get a TKO out of a well-bludgeoned opponent.
But in “Chuck,” which was directed by Philippe Falardeau (“The Good Lie”) and written by a quartet of screenwriters (Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Cristofer and Schreiber), that bout is only the first-act climax. What follows is the real matchup, between a man experiencing an adrenaline burst of fame, and a larger-than-life boxing movie. When Sylvester Stallone (a subtly charismatic Morgan Spector) turned Wepner’s legendary display of fortitude into a smash Oscar-winning film the following year, the scrappy club fighter was all too stoked to wear the mantle of mythic muse (“the real ‘Rocky’”) instead of a championship belt.
But fame wasn’t the only drug Wepner enjoyed as the threads got swankier, an already roving eye wandered further, and nightlife took its toll on his marriage to tough but fed-up Jersey gal Phyllis, played with palpable exasperation by Elisabeth Moss, and soured his relationship with his daughter. Even a goodwill gesture from Stallone — giving Wepner a chance to try out for a part in the first “Rocky” sequel — turns into a disaster after a coke-fueled bacchanalia with ever-enabling sidekick John (Jim Gaffigan), a holdover from his liquor-sales days.
Though the movie that Wepner idolizes is the has-been saga “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (clips of which are often shown), “Chuck” isn’t some punishing downer. Not with its frisky love of era-appropriate ’staches and hairlines, disco/funk tunes, and raunchy wisecracks from men and women alike. Falardeau maintains a crisp pace and seamlessly edits re-created scenes to look like grainy 16mm color with actual archival material.
Schreiber, looking relieved to swagger and stumble after so much righteous stoicism on “Ray Donovan,” gives Wepner’s rise and fall an earthy, human-sized appeal: he’s the macho screw-up with a glint in his eye, the guy you want to buy a few rounds, just to get his entertaining, likely embellished version of what happened, knowing he won’t leave out hurt feelings and lessons learned. He bounces well off Moss, who makes the most of Phyllis’ smile-turned-upside-down trajectory.
And as schematic as the pugilist’s rebound relationship with tart-tongued bartender Linda (a copper-haired Naomi Watts) may play, in real life she was Wepner’s redemption, going on four decades now, and it feels genuine. There are also solid bit turns by Ron Perlman, barking Yiddish as Wepner’s irascible (what else?) trainer, and Michael Rappaport as his estranged brother Donny.
“Chuck” is, in certain ways, not unlike its flawed hero: a lot of personality, just enough ambition, more interested in a good time and simple insight than a lasting impression. The blows are telegraphed, the moves are familiar, and sometimes a reliable boxing movie doesn’t have to be a title shot.
Rated: R, for language throughout, drug use, sexuality/nudity and some bloody images
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Hollywood; The Landmark, West L.A.