Directed by: Philippe Falardeau
Premise: A biographical story about heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner (Liev Schreiber). In 1975, Wepner was drafted to fight Muhammad Ali and after his brief moment of fame Wepner struggled with substance abuse.
What Works: Chuck could have been just another pugilist movie; Wepner being plucked from relative obscurity to fight one of boxing’s greatest fighters and then giving the champ a run for his money is itself a good story. But the makers of Chuck identified a broader, more interesting, and more dramatic narrative in Wepner’s life. The Wepner-Ali fight was the inspiration for 1976’s Rocky and Sylvester Stallone’s breakout film drew liberally from Wepner’s life but with key alterations to make the fictional character more likeable. Chuck begins with the Wepner-Ali bout and the fame and respect that Wepner accrued because of it. As dramatized in Chuck, the fight inspired Stallone to create Rocky and the movie became a cultural phenomenon. Despite having nothing to do with the production of Rocky, Wepner assumed credit for its success and rode the movie’s coattails as though it was his own accomplishment. By taking this approach,what might have been just another boxing drama becomes an interesting story about the relationship between art and life. Wepner’s response to Rocky was not all that different from the way many viewers saw the 1976 film; it was an inspiration and filled them with a sense of hope. But Wepner’s life story inverts many of the appeals of Rocky. As depicted in this film, Wepner had trouble distinguishing between himself and the fictional character he inspired. He was lost in a haze of fame that warped his priorities and falsely inflated his sense of self-importance. This is visualized effectively when Stallone (played terrifically by Morgan Spector) is prepping Rocky II and attempts to get Wepner a role in the movie. But when it becomes clear that Wepner isn’t going to have a Hollywood career and furthermore isn’t Rocky Balboa and never will be, he descends into a downward spiral. Chuck then becomes the story of a man who loses his grip on his own identity and must find his way back to himself. It’s a smart take on fame and art and the filmmakers handle it well.
What Doesn’t: Chuck includes unnecessary narration from the title character. The voiceover tends to state things that are already obvious to the viewer. The film simply doesn’t need it and the movie would have been stronger without it. Chuck is most interesting when it deals with the relationship between Wepner and his fictional alter-ego from the Rocky films. But the movie is less interesting when it slides into the typical celebrity drug story. Wepner became addicted to booze and narcotics and his marriage and other aspects of his life fell apart because of it. This portion of the movie treads into cliché territory in the story of yet another person whose life was ruined by fame.
DVD extras: Featurette.
Bottom Line: Chuck is an intelligent movie that’s very satisfying as a companion piece to the original Rocky and as a drama in its own right. The movie treads into some clichés about the perils of fame but what it has to say about art and identity is smart and even a little subversive.
Episode: #675 (November 19, 2017)