Chuck Wepner is a man of almosts. He almost lasted a full match with Muhammad Ali. He almost became a movie star. He almost was a good father and a good husband. He almost was a decent brother and a decent man. Never quite there, but almost.Just like the boxer himself, Chuck is a movie that is almost great, almost exemplary but just misses the final punch. Starring Liev Schreiber as the beloved but embattled boxer, the movie wrestles with itself on whether it should be a flashy, stylish 70s throwback or an honest, raw portrayal of a captivating, flawed, sports folk hero, never quite finding the seams between the two.
The movie follows Chuck as he rises through the boxing world and earns a once-in-a-lifetime shot to go toe-to-toe with Muhammad Ali. Chuck loses, but still manages to knock Ali on his ass, a moment that inspired a young Sylvester Stallone to write a movie based on him called Rocky. Rocky is a smash hit but Chuck still can’t seem to get it together to translate this success into something good. He loses the affection of his wife after too much fooling around, gets caught up in drugs so much he blows an audition with Stallone, and every good aspect of his life quickly unravels around him like a tattered boxing glove that’s been used one too many times.
These darker moments are where Chuck truly shines, where we see the boxer grapple with his mistakes, regrets and embarrassments. But too much of the film is dedicated to portraying his flashy lifestyle in the 1970s, almost as if the movie is concerned we might have forgotten what era it takes place so it constantly shoves glistening disco balls, bell bottom jeans and sweet, savory cocaine down our throats to make sure we remember. Chuck’s relationship with the no-BS-bartender Linda (played by Naomi Watts) gives us some heartfelt moments, but the scenes dedicated to his breaking relationship with his wife Phyliss (played by Elisabeth Moss) don’t really amount to anything meaningful. Watts and Moss both give electric performances, but Moss doesn’t conjure the same electricity in her time on-screen with Schreiber as much as Watts.
But the true shining beacon of the movie is Liev Schreiber, throwing himself fully into the ring as boxer and giving us his all. You get the sense that Schreiber admires Chuck just as much as Chuck admired Stallone, that he would have done the role free of charge if it meant seeing the real-life Chuck happy. And Schreiber plays Chuck with a sense of respect and dignity, even in the moments when he’s drunkenly bench-pressing topless 20-somethings in the seedy backroom of a disco club. When the weaker moments of the movie show up, Schreiber guides us through them, and we’re genuinely happy he invited us along to go the distance.