One-sided plot brings down 'Champ'
In "Resurrecting the Champ," Samuel L. Jackson is Bob Satterfield, a dread-locked, homeless, deranged, and wheezing ex-boxer living on the streets of Denver. Satterfield was well-respected and almost famous in the 1950s, but when we meet him he's a stumbling punching bag for a group of young men who hop out of their SUV to knock him around. Thank goodness Erik Kernan (ever earnest Josh Hartnett) happens by the beating. He covers boxing for the fictitious Denver Times. He really wants to cover the Nuggets or the Broncos, but his editor (Alan Alda) finds his work merely passable ("I forget your stories while I'm reading them").
Kernan thinks he needs a big piece to stretch out in, and Satterfield could be it. The paper's magazine shows interest in a cover story. The boxer shows interest in being covered. Not only would the story reroute the writer's career, it might save his marriage to a fellow Times reporter (Kathryn Morris), whom we're repeatedly told is very good yet seems very much out of his professional league. It could also bring him closer to his young son (Dakota Goyo) and make Kernan worthy of the name he shares with his late father, a respected boxing commentator. It all works out, more or less. Showtime, in the person of a delightfully glib Teri Hatcher, beseeches him to do post-fight interviews for the channel's boxing coverage, and co-workers hand out hosannas.
If most boxing movies are about redemption, "Resurrecting the Champ" is a boxing movie that goes to exasperating lengths to redeem its boxing writer. The film is based on a gripping article that J.R. Moehringer wrote 10 years ago for the Los Angeles Times Magazine. It's considered one of the great sports-journalism stories. This adaptation, though, bastardizes it, hinging on the kind of surprise (it comes about an hour in) that, if you're unfamiliar with the details, wakes up the movie for a little while, but is a cheap departure from the essence of Moehringer's story.
The screenwriters, Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett, and the director, Rod Lurie, an ex-film critic whose political drama, "The Contender," also hinged on a big plot twist, capture the journalistic nightmare that's at the movie's center. Professionally speaking, it definitely twisted the pit of my stomach. But it raises some crucial questions about how good Kernan is at his job. For one thing, if the piece he's written is so powerfully good and so pivotal for his success, we should see him working on it. We need to sample its prose. He just tells a researcher what he needs and hangs out with Satterfield, leaving you with the sense that Kernan's piece wrote itself. More aggravating is the possibility that the film is exploiting Satterfield as much as Kernan appears to be -- it's all about the reporter. The boxer, who far and away is the movie's most complicated character, becomes both an afterthought and a vehicle for somebody else's redemption.
Jackson invests this part with a sort of hamminess -- he's drunk, jovial, not-all-there. But he's still very much in the realm of recognizable humanity. This is the same thing he did earlier this year with an undercooked character, albeit a more original one, in "Black Snake Moan." He was better there. Still, he appears to believe in this part just as much.
The movie ultimately doesn't know what to make of his character. There are detours into Satterfield's life, including some momentary, vivid-looking reenactments that almost sink the movie since they suggest the real story is elsewhere. Instead, Satterfield barely exists when Kernan isn't around. So "Resurrecting the Champ" is one-sided Hollywood claptrap about honesty and valor, about how the truth, sigh, can set us free -- well, some of us.