One of my all-time favorite movies is Requiem for a Heavyweight. It stars Anthony Quinn as an aging boxer that goes the distance in a fight he shouldn’t have been able to (it was with Cassius Clay…that’s Ali before he changed his name). He finds out his slimy manager, played by Jackie Gleason, had bet a lot of money against him and lost. Quinn, as Mountain Rivera, being the classy guy he was…tries helping him out of the jam. Trainer Mickey Rooney just wants him to retire, and get a job working with kids at a camp, which is something he’s looking forward to doing. Of course, the sleazy manager ruins that, which results in the perhaps the saddest ending a movie can have without a person dying. It’s a person losing their dignity, in the ring.
This movie shows clips from Requiem, and the main character — real life boxer Chuck Wepner — is obsessed with it. Unfortunately, this movie isn’t nearly as good. And where I thought it would parallel the career of the boxer in that film, it really didn’t. Chuck causes all his own problems, and it’s hard to have much sympathy for him. Unfortunately, it’s also a boxing movie that follows all the usual tropes. And I just saw all these in last year’s film on Robert Duran (Hands of Stone). But…I’m a boxing nut, so this movie is right in my wheelhouse.
The other thing that throws this into my wheelhouse is Liev Schreiber. I was a little late to the party on his career. When he did early films, I didn’t take much notice. But over the last 10 years, I’ve been astounded at just how diverse an actor he is. It boggles my mind that he can play a hockey thug in Goon, or a thoughtful editor in Spotlight, a Russian in Pawn Sacrifice, and look like completely different people. So watching Schreiber play a boxer I was always interested in but knew little about…was like a movie dream come true.
I had always thought of Chuck Wepner the way I did Randall “Tex” Cobb. He’s the guy that went the distance with Larry Holmes, and it was so bloody…announcer Howard Cosell claimed he’d never watch another fight. Cobb ended up having a nice career in Hollywood (remember him as the motorcycle thug in Raising Arizona?). Wepner ended up in Hollywood when Sylvester Stallone borrowed a bit from his life story to make Rocky. [Side note: I have no clue why the movie didn’t tell us that he actually won a lawsuit because of that, too; also not sure why Stallone, after losing a lawsuit, would then use the story of a wrestler fighting him and throwing him out of the ring. With Wepner in real life, it was Andre the Giant who did that. In Rocky III, Hulk Hogan played the wrestler].
The two things I needed to see more of was his previous boxing career. This guy went 10 friggin’ rounds with Sonny Liston. He needed over 70 stitches in his face afterwards, but…show that! He only lasted three rounds with Foreman. The only fight we see is the Ali one, which may have resulted in a broken nose — but he did knock Ali down and went 15 rounds. Don King organized that fight, thinking the public would like to see a white boxer fight Ali. Wepner was the only one in the Top 10 rankings. Ali made over a million dollars for that in 1976. Wepner got $100,000, but hey…it was more money than the Bayonne Bleeder had ever seen.
Another thing the movie needed to show us was his family history. There’s some tension with his estranged brother (Michael Rapaport), but we don’t get to learn much about that. Instead, we get what we’ve seen so much of the last few years — the drugs, the womanizing, and the funky clothes and nightclubs of the ‘70s.
We don’t learn much about his wife Phyllis (Elisabeth Moss), who’s actually his second wife. Manager/trainer Al Braverman (Ron Perlman) has a few fun scenes. Scenes that are all made more fun with Schreiber’s narration.
It was a terrific choice to cast one of the best stand-up comedians ever — Jim Gaffigan — as Chuck’s best friend.
Naomi Watts plays bartender Linda, the only woman in Jersey that isn’t interested in sleeping with the big lug (despite them having the exact same birthday).
There are a few scenes with Sylvester Stallone, who is played by Morgan Spector (Boardwalk Empire). Those are done well, the way the scenes with Kirk Douglas and John Wayne were in Trumbo. You never want those scenes coming off like a skit in Saturday Night Live.
The movie should’ve also given us a bit more background into how Wepner ended up in the ring fighting a bear…or Andre the Giant. Was he hard-up for money? Early on, we see that he has to work as a liquor distributor for a day job. Yet after the Ali fight, we just see him partying, doing drugs, and then selling drugs.
I’m giving it 3 ½ stars out of 5, which is generous. Had it not been for all the stand-out performances, and the love letter to Requiem for a Heavyweight — it would get 2 ½.