Within the pantheon of American boxing movies, from On the Waterfront to Creed, none stray too far from the template: You have your working-class, punch-drunk dullard with aspirations of being a champion. Nobody believes in him, but he plans to overcome the odds and be one of the greats. He falls in love with a neighborhood girl, and/or finds a spiritual mentor in a trainer. Miraculously, he finds himself faced with the fight of his life! Whether he wins or loses “the big fight,” he’ll defy the odds, gain success and/or celebrity, and likely spiral into a pattern of nefariousness or poverty. Sometimes he can dig himself out and be great again. Sometimes it’s too late.
While Chuck fits almost perfectly into said pugilist film pigeonhole, it has a light-hearted self-awareness that sets it apart from the rest. It also holds up a mirror to other boxing films because it recounts a period in the career of real-life fighter Chuck Wepner, who—according to some, including Wepner—inspired Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky.
The first chunk of Chuck is, essentially, a condensed version of that sports movie template—but the meat of the film depicts the aftermath of Wepner’s 1975 fight with Muhammad Ali. Here, Wepner, AKA “The Bayonne Bleeder,” is bril- liantly played by Liev Schreiber, whose thick New Jersey accent never falters, and who moves through every scene with a goofy swagger. Consequently, the tragic tone that most boxing films have never comes into play—even when Wepner battles the law, or faces marital strife with Phyllis (Elisabeth Moss), his “neighborhood girl” of a wife, there’s a lightness—and, thanks to the real-life Rocky connections, a meta-ness—to Wepner’s misfortune and misadventure.