Resurrecting The Champ

When is a boxing movie not a boxing movie? When it’s actually about coming to terms with the deep-seated abandonment and inferiority complex issues you have with your derelict father. But of course, that’s only when it’s not also about the pitfalls of maintaining journalistic integrity while trying to become as prominent a reporter as the aforementioned father figure. That’s not to say that all of the above would make for a bad movie, it just means don’t believe the poster if it makes it look like another Rocky Balboa.

Erik Kernan Jr. (Josh Hartnett) is a sports journalist who spends his days and nights covering the stuff that fills in pages five and six of the Denver Times sports section. He lives in the shadow of his father, a man who took off when Erik was young to become one the most renowned boxing reporters of his day. To further complicate matters his marriage is beginning to crumble and he lies to his son to make him think he’s a better man than he really is. He’s a guy in need of a either a miracle or a therapist.

Fortunately there are miracles to be found if you know what dark Denver alleys to walk down. Kernan’s particular brand of angel is a homeless man whom everyone calls “Champ” (Samuel L. Jackson). One night while walking home from covering a match, Kernan intervenes in a fight between Champ and few drunken partiers out to take advantage of the old man who claims to be near legendary boxer Battling Bob Satterfield. It’s a suspicious claim since Satterfield was proclaimed dead decades ago. Kernan cautiously develops a relationship with the man and, believing Champ’s story that he is indeed Satterfield, sets out to write the article that just might save his career, his marriage, his relationship with his son, and give him the boost he needs to live up to his famous last name.

As Champ unfolds his amazing life story to Kernan, the already heavily burdened plot takes on another load in the form of Satterfield’s own tragic existence. There are plenty of poetic parallels between the two men’s lives and Champ’s life lessons offer Kernan the opportunity to recognize and maybe even correct some of his own mistakes before they take the same tolls on him. When Kernan’s spectacular article turns him into a celebrity overnight, things just couldn’t be any better. But it’s a reality ready to shatter like a boxer’s glass jaw when doubts are raised over whether or not Champ is who he says he is and Kernan’s integrity is brought into question.

There is a lot going on in Resurrecting The Champ; maybe too much for its own good. And yet, for all the emotional baggage flying around the movie still carves out a story that works, if only because its cast does such a phenomenal job.

Hartnett carries the mantle of an emotionally battered man well enough in his own scenes, but he pales in the presence of Jackson’s Champ. Jackson’s transformation into an old man who “isn’t a bum, just homeless” and he somehow manages to make even the most trite and pedantic monologue feel like pearls of grandfatherly wisdom. Even though Hartnett’s character is at the heart of the story, he comes across as playing a supporting role to Jackson who does a far better job capturing his characters’ tragedies and triumphs.

Even if Hartnett comes across as second banana, he’s in good company. Alan Alda, Teri Hatcher, Peter Coyote, Rachel Nichols and Dakota Goyo (who charmingly plays Kernan’s six-year-old son) all add wonderful depth to the film despite the thin lines they're forced to deliver.

An hour and a half long movie trapped in a two hour running time, Resurrecting the Champ’s key problem is that it tries too hard to pack in too much. The film (which is loosely based on a true story) sometimes feels like the writers had a wheel-o’-plot-points which they spun at the beginning of each new scene to decide which of many struggles their protagonist was going to have to deal with next. And yet over-burdened as it may be, it’s still a good film, even if it isn't much of a boxing flick.