In Brief: The more or less true story of the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky

Chuck as in Chuck Wepner. And Chuck’s claim to household name fame began in 1975 when he battled Muhammad Ali. It was Ali’s first fight after defeating George Foreman in Zaire. Known as the Bayonne Bleeder because of his penchant for getting cut, Wepner stunned the world and lasted all but 19-seconds of 15 rounds. He is also known for knocking the champ down.

I saw the fight and I remember Wepner and his Ali knockdown well. Few non-fight fans will.

Wepner’s fame grew even more and in a roundabout way when — after watching the fight — a young Sylvester Stallone wrote Rocky. It won an Academy Award winning in 1976 as the year’s best screenplay. Stallone admits Wepner is the inspiration for one of the most beloved characters in movie history.

It’s also something I knew but very few people do. Or at least didn’t until now. But the more you know about Wepner’s life the more you see the resemblance to Rocky.

Except in Bayonne, New Jersey circles Wepner disappeared from public view almost as quickly as he ascended and his real life hasn’t been close to as positive or Hollywood as Stallone’s Rocky. Now he’s back — and in limited release that pretty much guarantees continuing anonymity — in the form of the new drama Chuck.

The screenplay is co-written by Liev Schreiber who stars and is directed by The Good Lie’s Philippe Falardeau. His co-writers are a very interesting mix. One is Jeff Feuerzeug who did 2011’s The Real Rocky,  a documentary about Wepner’s life.  I suspect it is the inspiration for the movie. Another is Pulitzer Prize winner and Tony winner Michael Cristofer who penned the play The Shadow Box.

Last is Bad Boys II co-writer Jerry Stahl.

The film starts much like Rocky. Schreiber’s Wepner is one of those lovable characters who is much beloved in his community. Greeted positively everywhere he does, Wepner is married, a bit of a philanderer, boxing more or less part time and working as a liquor salesman. Then comes that life changing phone call.

Schreiber is pitch perfect as a clueless pug who is unable to turn his 15-minutes of fame into a profitable career. He’s a terrific actor with the rare ability to portray a more or less two-dimensional human being into someone with three-dimensions. It’s the latest in a long line of Schreiber’s gambles. He’s the rare actor who’d rather enjoy a deep, rich character than go commercial.

Here it really pays off. This is a great performance wrapped in a fascinating real-life character study.

The casting is inspired. Shooting for the film must’ve come before Scheiber and wife Naomi Watts split. She plays a head-turning bartender who befriends Wepner. Also on tap for significant roles are Elisabeth Moss (TV’s Mad Men), comedian Jim Gaffigan and Ron Perlman.

The most fun comes via a small part from Morgan Spector who does Stallone and does him perfectly.

While I love the casting, Pooch Hall’s (he’s Schreiber’s Ray Donovan co-star in the Showtime series) Muhammad Ali leaves a lot to be desired. But the larger-than-life Ali is almost impossible to duplicate.

Falardeau’s film is a superb look back at boxing history. Packed with a perfect 1970s soundtrack, the story of the real life Rocky is as much fun as Stallone’s. It is loaded with humor and humility, and arrogance and greed. In its own cringeworthy, Rocky-like way, Chuck is inspiring. Thrust into fame like a deer caught in headlights, Wepner — like most of us — stumbles through the experience the best he can and eventually figures it all out.

If you’re a fight fan and remember the Ali era and the real life Chuck, this one is a real treat. And if you’re not? It’s a real treat anyway. One of my favorite films of the year.

Director: Philippe Falardeau

Stars: Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Elisabeth Moss, Ron Perlman, Pooch Hall, Jim Gaffigan, Sylvester Stallone

Rated R for mature themes, violence, language and nudity. A little bit of 15-minutes of fame boxing history and one of the year’s best films that no one will see. Average Joe Movie punches it up at a 5 on his 0 to 5 scale.

Click here for showtimes and theaters.

5 to 4 1/2: Must see on the big screen.
4 to 3 1/2: Good film, see it if it’s your type of movie.
3 to 2 1/2: Wait until it comes out on DVD.
2 to 1: Don’t bother.
0:Speaks for itself.

Gary Wolcott has been a movie consultant for KXL since 2014. A lifelong fan of film, he’s been a film critic in radio, television and newspaper for 25-years. Wolcott catches a couple of hundred movies a year and he sees a great many of them so you don’t have to.

Got a movie suggestion or comment? Email him!


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