Review: Resurrecting the Champ

The legacy of lies, or the unfathomable reach of deception, endures a vigorous workout in Rod Lurie's "Resurrecting the Champ" (IMDb listing). Drowned in an ocean of sentimental syrup in the final reel, "Champ" is a solid bout of conscience wrestling that is far more skilled at introducing themes than exploring them.

Erik Kernan (Josh Hartnett) is a reporter for the Denver Times who comes across a homeless man claiming he's a forgotten heavyweight contender named Bob Satterfield (Samuel L. Jackson). Seizing the opportunity to turn his writing career around, Erik befriends Bob, looking to write a cover story on the life of a forgotten boxer. Bob soon opens himself to Erik, forcing him to confront the inadequacies in his own life. Once the story goes nationwide and makes Erik a star, problems soon come knocking, shoving Erik against the wall for his reporting errors.

"Resurrecting the Champ" desires to be many things to many viewers, which is both an admirable and tiring quality. Lurie, an uneven director ("The Contender," "The Last Castle") who could use an editor comfortable criticizing his vision, is clearly in love with the possibilities of the "Champ" plot, loosely rooted in fact. Trouble is, he doesn't have much of a game plan.

Take the film as a portrait of two lost souls with big time daddy issues and "Champ" works out just fine. The picture is led by Jackson's wobbly, cracked performance as Bob (who speaks exactly like Dave Chappelle's mischievous crackhead creation, Tyrone); the actor is finally able to hide inside a character for the first time in a long time. As Erik and Bob buddy up, "Champ" discovers clarity, pushing forward as an interesting film about journalism standards (Alan Alda kills in a supporting role as Erik's editor), questions of trust, and the thirst for success in the cutthroat business of writing.

However, Lurie starts to move beyond his means toward the middle of the film, detonating Erik's world and slavishly tracing all the fragments. Asides with Teri Hatcher as a boozy Showtime casting agent, Peter Coyote hamming it up as an elderly boxing trainer, and Erik's own romantic and familial complexities drain the movie of focus. Lurie fails miserably corralling his tangents. "Champ" is nervous to leave anything unspoken, as though skipping a chance to see every subplot all the way through to the end will erase anything of merit about the film.

The scattershot nature of the direction is disappointing when, in fact, "Champ" evokes a lovely feeling of classic boxing and the desperate chase of a journalist after his one shot at glory. The scenes between Bob and Erik summon a charming nostalgia for elder gladiators such as Rocky Marciano and Jake LaMotta, lamenting their treatment once the spotlight faded. Erik's own struggle with vocational expectations is an interesting thread that Lurie pulls at, lending the viewer a glimpse of the pressure-cooker environment of a mediocre writer trying to aim his big shot.

In the final act, Lurie drives "Champ" over a cliff, slathering on sticky emotional conformity, making sure to pass out the happy endings like candy on Halloween. It's one thing to want the film to end on a high note, but Lurie includes obnoxious and crude moments with Erik's weepy kid, off-screen relationship miracles with his estranged wife (Kathryn Morris), and keeps the film running 30 minutes longer than it should to make certain everything is in order. The anvil-like weight of contrivance nearly sours the quality of the whole film, but there's still some story worth savoring, even if Lurie makes the audience work hard to extract it.

Filmfodder Grade: C+