Resurrecting the Champ (2007) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some violence and brief language
Running time: 111 min.
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Samuel L. Jackson, Kathryn Morris, Dakota Goyo, Alan Alda, David Paymer, Rachel Nichols, Teri Hatcher, Harry J. Lennix, Peter Coyote, John Elway (cameo), Rod Lurie (cameo), Jake Plummer (cameo), Jake LaMotta (cameo)
Director: Rod Lurie
Screenplay: Michael Bortman, Allison Bennett (based on a Los Angeles Times article by J.R. Moehringer)
Review published September 4, 2007
With a convincing rasping wheeze, Samuel L. Jackson (Home of the Brave, Snakes on a Plane) shows off that he has range beyond playing a bad-ass with Resurrecting the Champ, a well-acted but rather formulaic story of a mediocre reporter's quest to redeem himself by writing the story of his life. The events of the film are wholly fictionalized, although it is inspired by a news article that appeared in the L.A. Times. It's a story with many parallels on truth and fatherhood, which is nicely structured by the screenplay by Michael Bortman (Chain Reaction, The Good Mother) and Allison Bennett (Autumn in New York, Perfect Romance). Rod Lurie's (The Last Castle, The Contender) delivery of these events feels more like a movie than anything one can expect to find happening in real life. Like any news story, authenticity is crucial for an earthy drama to work, and while there are certainly moments of interest and depth, Resurrecting the Champ feels too manufactured to strike a firmly resonant chord.
Josh Hartnett (The Black Dahlia, Lucky Number Slevin) gets the most screen time, playing Erik Keman Jr., a sports reporter (and neglected son of a famous sportscaster himself) for the Denver Post who is fighting to keep his job now that cutbacks are rumored due to people getting their news from the internet and other sources. The editor keeps trying to goad Erik into producing work that shows some heart and personality, instead of the dry copy he regularly turns in. The newspaper's magazine section, the prestige gig at the Post, is looking for something of quality to run with, and Erik gives him just what they ordered. After a run-in with a homeless man in the street calling himself "Champ" (Jackson), claiming to be old-time boxer Bob Satterfield, the editors are most interested in the story, even willing to give it cover-story prominence if Erik can turn in a dynamite article. He does, and they do run with it, catapulting Erik to the forefront. However, Erik's ambitiousness seems to have gotten in the way of his journalistic responsibilities, as doubts emerge as to whether he has all of the facts in the story of Satterfield.
Resurrecting the Champ is two concurrent storylines in one, both involving people who want to be admired, not for who they are, but for what people want them to be. Champ wants people to respect him for who he once was, while Erik wants so very much to believe his story, he doesn't even bother checking out the hard facts, doling out the responsibilities to an assistant at the paper who has never even met the former boxer. Meanwhile, Erik himself habitually tells falsehoods in order to gain the respect of the son who feeds off of thinking his father a big shot. Erik claims to be good friend with John Elway, and played gold with Muhammad Ali, and the look in his son's eyes when telling him this makes it too hard to back down and tell the truth.
The parallels in the story are understandable, and could be enriching, if not for the fact that Champ's story is far more compelling than Erik's. Although both men are willing to string out untruths when the situations arise, Erik's inner need to do so is never evident enough to justify the harm he causes to his family, friends, and fellow journalists. Erik eventually learns humility at a heavy price, but never for being what he is -- an opportunistic liar with much more ambition than talent. That he doesn't deserve his separated wife (Morris, Mindhunters) is a given, but he also doesn't deserve a job in the newspaper industry, even with one good story under his belt. He is careless, reckless, and has no journalistic instincts whatsoever, not to mention interest in doing any real work. He gets a proverbial slap on the wrist for a lifetime of advantage-taking. Perhaps a celebrity gossip job would be a suitable fit (and punishment).
While Champ has his flaws, his are easier to accept, if for no other reason that he doesn't do them out of a wish to gain advancement or favor. He has no family any longer to look down on him, no coworkers who rely on him, and no wife waiting for him to live up to his responsibilities. He doesn't lie to get people to like him so much as he lies so he can feel that he can like himself -- a dream he can cling to that keeps him from accepting the fact that he's the bum that everyone sees him as being.
Resurrecting the Champ has its strengths, most notably in fine performances by Jackson and Hartnett in roles that aren't exactly glamorous. The screenplay has a good sense of characters, and the structure of it is presented well, even if the reporter's fall from grace angle proves not particularly appealing. Like the writing of Erik itself, it just lacks a certain quality that would elevate it from acceptable fare to a truly magnificent work. For a film that features many ironies, here's another one: a little more grounded reality and a little less manipulation crafted in order to gain our favor would do both pieces, both the story in the film and the film itself, a great deal of service. Watch it purely for entertainment purposes, but also watch Shattered Glass to see this material done right.
©2007 Vince Leo