Rated R, 98 minutes
Every legend has a start somewhere, including Rocky Balboa. The familiar and thinly charming “Chuck” tells the story of Chuck Wepner, the man known as “The Real Rocky,” who was supposedly the inspiration for the movie after Sylvester Stallone wrote the film after seeing him fight. The low-budget indie drama doesn’t have a lot to offer outside of the Ali and Rocky connections, but there are a handful of good moments.
He was the pride of Bayonne, N.J., a man who went 15 rounds in the ring with Muhammad Ali and was the inspiration for the iconic movie character Rocky Balboa. But before all of that, Chuck Wepner (Liev Schreiber) was a liquor salesman and father with a modest prizefighting career whose life changed overnight when, in 1975, he was chosen to take on Ali in a highly publicized title match. It's the beginning of a wild ride through the exhilarating highs and humbling lows of sudden fame, but what happens when your 15 minutes in the spotlight are up?
“Chuck” is directed Philippe Falardeau (“Monsieur Lazar” and co-written by Jeff Feuerzeig (who made the ESPN documentary about Wepner, “The Real Rocky”) and Jerry Stahl (“Bad Boys II” and “Permanent Midnight”) and tells the story about the man who became famous for going the distance with Ali that supposedly influenced the story behind one of the most recognized names in cinema, Rocky Balboa. That alone carries some appeal to the well-acted, low-key story, though in fact there’s a ton of these stories floating around; it’s certainly nothing new and not all all that fascinating, except that Wepner was in the right place at the right time.
As the titular character, “Ray Donovan’s” Schreiber is both believable and affecting as Chuck, and he’s well-supported by Ron Perlman as his manager and trainer, comedian Jim Gaffigan as his best friend, and as two of his wives, “The Handmaid Tale’s” Elisabeth Moss and Schreiber’s real-life ex-partner, Naomi Watts, who’s given little to do here, as is acclaimed character actor Michael Rappaport in an awkward and tiny part as Wepner’s estranged brother.
Outside of the fight and the Rocky connection, Wepner’s personal life isn’t much to sing about: he struggled with a bevy of addiction and legal issues that comes with trying to keep your 15 minutes of fame going, and much of this seems like filler through the rest of “Chuck.” The most compelling (and occasionally sad) aspect is that Chuck himself believed he was Rocky and could overcome anything, but unfortunately real-life can hit you harder than anything outside the boxing ring.
Wepner is still alive and kicking today, in what is likely the longest 15 minutes of fame ever. “Chuck” is thin, charming and isn’t as fascinating as it would like to be; for those who enjoy the Rocky films and true sports stories, it holds some appeal and goes the distance, but you won’t remember much outside the boxing ring.