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Resurrecting the Champ
Resurrecting the Champ is a movie that has a lot on its mind: journalistic responsibility, faded celebrity, and the bond between fathers and sons, just to name a few themes. That its able to put the pieces together in such a well-structured way makes it an uncommonly thoughtful movie, and one worth seeing.
Erik Kernan (Josh Hartnett), a reporter at the Denver Times, is a mediocre sportswriter. He files story after story, but never gets to cover anything big because according to his editor Metz (Alan Alda), his stories are “a lot of typing – not much writing.” He’s also, for all intents and purposes, a hustler: he steals phrases from his famous dead father’s boxing radio commentaries to use in his stories, he tells his son that he’s friends with all the famous athletes he writes about, and he’s constantly trying to find an in with his estranged wife (Kathryn Morris), who also works at the paper. He manages to fast-talk his way to an interview with the newspaper’s magazine section, but when asked to pitch a story, he’s got nothing until he remembers the Champ.
The Champ (Samuel L. Jackson) is what the old homeless man near Erik’s apartment calls himself. He told Erik one time that he used to be a boxer named Bob Satterfield, and maybe Erik can do a story about “the rise, fall, and resurrection” of the former heavyweight contender who everyone thought was dead. The suits (represented by David Paymer) buy Erik’s pitch. I think I smell a perfect line for the trailer…yep, there it is: “This article is my title shot!” Erik exclaims to his wife.
Right off the bat, neither the screenwriters nor Hartnett are worried about making Erik especially likable; he’s earnest, yeah, and he wants his son to be proud of him, sure, but he’ll advance his career no matter what, talent be darned. The characterization might turn people off from the film, but I admired it; like Erik, everyone in the film seems to be playing a real person, more or less, not some kind of fantasy Hollywood character.
That goes for Jackson, too. His Champ is obviously the most showy role in the film, and if it was overacted the results would be disastrous, but Jackson finds just the right note through the character’s mood swings, high voice, and mud-caked wild hair. Much of the middle of the film shows Erik’s ongoing interviews with Champ, and the results are effortlessly watchable. Hartnett is often accused in reviews of being bland, but the hidden desperation he imbues his character with, coupled with Jackson’s monologues about his past life as a boxer, strikes a good
dynamic. In real life I could care less about boxing as a sport, but their conversations use the boxing subject as an insight into character, a tactic all good films do.
These scenes would also be interesting to watch a second time, because two-thirds of the way through the film, there’s a big reversal that all the ads and other reviews are pretty much giving away freely. On the off chance that you’re planning on seeing this and you don’t know what happens, I won’t reveal it. Suffice to say that the film takes an abrupt turn that veers into the whole aforementioned question of journalistic responsibility, which ultimately gives way to the final theme of the relationship between fathers and sons, as Erik is forced to come to terms with living under the shadow of his famous father, as well as his own duty as a father. In most movies, the protagonist’s arc seems disingenuous because the protagonist himself is already a perfectly likable character. By making Erik have real flaws, his journey becomes uncommonly credible.
The film isn’t perfect and takes some odd detours, most notably the introduction of Teri Hatcher as a gushy suit from Showtime trying to court Erik as an on-air boxing reporter. (She does have a great line, though, which I’m paraphrasing, explaining that the job only requires you to be “very good-looking for the women, and just barely credible enough so that their husbands won’t resent you for it.”) But all of its multiple themes and plot strands land with an ending that feels both earned and resolved. It’s worth stressing again that the best thing about Resurrecting the Champ is that every character, despite all the big ideas at work, actually seems to be a real person inhabiting the real world.
Movie Grade: A-
Living on the streets of Denver, pushing a shopping cart piled high with all his worldly possessions, the man everyone calls “The Champ” (Samuel L. Jackson) knows he was not the greatest boxer to ever step in the ring, but at least he had a shot at it. After years of succumbing to fighters who ultimately found his glass jaw more often than he landed a winning punch, the Champ went from up-and-coming to mere has-been, with no heavyweight championship under his belt. Now the man who once went by the legendary title of “Battling Bob Satterfield” fights no one but cops and street thugs. Living in the shadow of his former self, this champ is down and halfway out.
Denver Times sports reporter Erik Kernan (Josh Hartnett) knows the feeling. He’s been living in the shadow of his famous father Erik the “Wow” man Kernan ever since he too decided to be a journalist. Listening to tapes of his old man’s lively radio broadcasts — Erik is
aware that he has some big journalistic shoes to fill. Assigned to cover all the bush-league sporting events, he wants a shot and the big time, but his hard-driving editor Metz (Alan Alda
) is quick to tell Erik he’s just not cutting it.
“I forget your pieces while I’m reading them,” Metz complains. “A lotta typing – not much writing.”
Rapidly losing ground at work and at home – his wife Joyce (Kathryn Morris) has asked for a separation – Erik is afraid of becoming an absent father to his son Teddy (Dakota Goyo) just like his father was to him. He needs to make changes, to put heart back into his life and into his work . . . but how?
One night after leaving the paper, as Erik sees a gang of thugs beating up a homeless man. He notices how well the grizzly old fellow can take a punch. He bobs, he weaves, he lands a few good ones himself until Erik chases the thugs away, leaving jeers of how they beat “The Champ” in their wake.
Erik realizes he has just rescued the legendary “Battling Bob Satterfield” and stumbled on the story of a lifetime. But rumor had it Satterfield was dead…and yet here he was. An article about the rise, fall and resurrection of a former heavyweight contender could get Erik’s career off the ropes and breathe life into his confidence. A story like this could be the title shot he has been waiting for a chance to change his life forever.