Denver sportswriter Erik Kerman, Jr. (Josh Hartnett) is at loose ends, fighting an uphill battle against his editor (Alan Alda) to keep his byline from being buried in the paper’s back pages, and against his estranged wife, to keep himself a presence in his young son’s life. Erik’s pitch for a prestige spot in the Sunday magazine comes when he meets a homeless man known on the streets as “Champ” (Samuel L. Jackson), identifying himself to anyone who’ll listen as none other than Bob “Bombadier” Satterfield, a high-flying heavyweight contender in the Fifties, now assumed dead by anyone who might’ve once cared, and reduced to dragging his worldly goods around in a shopping cart and taking his meals at community centers.
Whenever you’re dealing with the plot keywords “fathers and sons” and “sports,” the potential for emotional molestation is daunting, and “Resurrecting the Champ” doesn’t defy any expectations on that count. Whatever finesse and restraint there is to Rod Lurie‘s direction is hobbled by Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett‘s screenplay, a bowdlerization of J.R. Moehringer‘s 1997 article for the Los Angeles Times Magazine–the script fails to attribute a quote it uses from famed journalist A.J. Liebling, shows not a jot of Moehringer’s feel for the sport, and distills the complexities of its source into rote observations on redemption, dadhood, and integrity.
The process of dramatization also allows for the creation of a minefield of untenable invented scenes: Jackson is introduced when being pummeled by some popped-collar suburban punks in a crass move to eke out audience sympathy; the real-life Champ’s unsavory criminal history is conveniently omitted from the film, making for a portrait of the man as sanitized as punch-drunk-naive Rocky Balboa is to Chuck Wepner. Easily the high watermark of absurdity comes when Erik, after his article’s fact-checking becomes a point of public debate (the script gloms onto the whole literary hoax/ journalistic integrity vogue), has to face his kid’s “Career Day,” where he’s grilled by a classroom of nine-year-olds, a scene that doesn’t remotely resemble anything that might conceivably happen in the world we live in. Almost the only moment that gives off any stink of shoe-leather reportage–lifted more or less intact from the source article, which makes everything of the investigative process–is a visit to some ancient cornermen at a boxing gym, barely an aside.
Despite all this, the film plays better than it should by virtue of personnel. Jackson, always game for a new hairpiece, shows up here in a ropey fright wig, affecting a reedy wheeze through glommed-up teeth (a reworking of his old “Caveman’s Valentine” getup). It’s another in a long line of facile Jackson performances, but the part at least steers clear of wise-old-soul-“Mr. Wendell” territory, and he digs a few good line-readings out of the trash. Hartnett’s work here isn’t surprising, really–who wants astonishment from Josh Hartnett?–but the actor does intent, unshowy work, ever sensitive to his boundaries as an actor. It’s no coup, but certainly more than the movie deserves.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.]