‘Chuck’ comes out swinging

May 12, 2017

Generally accepted as a real-life inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s fictional boxer Rocky Balboa and the Academy Award-winning 1976 film about him, Charles “Chuck” Wepner, aka the Bayonne Bleeder, is a not very successful professional New Jersey boxer who manages to get himself ranked high enough to qualify for a 1975 fight with legendary champion Muhammad Ali (Pooch Hall), who just defeated defending champ George Foreman in the historic “Rumble in the Jungle.”

Chuck is a full-time liquor dealer and part-time prize fighter and debt collector when we meet him. He is married to devoted Phyllis (Elisabeth Moss), and they have a young daughter for whom Chuck writes childlike but adorable poems.

But Chuck has a wandering eye and is easily tempted, and he is a party guy in 1970s disco-era America, where booze and drugs are plentiful and the sexual revolution is in full swing.

Ali is an icon to millions. Chuck is no one. But this fight is his chance to find redemption and perhaps even respect. For the first time ever, Chuck gets to “train like a pro” in the Catskills. Chuck has no illusions about his ability. But he can take a punch, and his plan is to go the distance with the champ.

Like the man himself, this underdog story (the odds against Wepner are 40 to 1) is awfully hard to resist, even if Chuck’s behavior frequently makes you want to slug him.

And the film is a scrappy underdog here at the start of summer movie season, a small independent effort with breakout appeal, thanks to a great story and a cast headed by Liev Schreiber, a big bruiser best known as the lead on the cable TV series “Ray Donovan.” Schreiber’s love for and insight into the well-meaning, courageous, screw-up character he’s playing lights up the screen.

Directed by Quebecois filmmaker Philippe Falardeau, “Chuck” is a genuine sleeper. Naomi Watts, Schreiber’s former real-life partner, plays Linda, the New Jersey bartender Wepner would marry after Phyllis divorces him. Also in the stellar cast are Ron Perlman as Chuck’s pastrami-munching, mercurial manager Al Braverman, Jim Gaffigan as Chuck’s best buddy/wingman and Morgan Spector (“Boardwalk Empire”) as Stallone.

(“Chuck” contains profanity, violence and drug use.)