Resurrecting the Champ
This is an abridged version of a review I wrote for Christianity Today Movies. To read the rest of this review, click here.
Erik Kernan (Josh Hartnett) is a sports reporter for the Denver Times whose work, while solid, is uninspiring and tame — bland copy lacking the stimulation necessary to evolve into truly great journalism. When Erik confronts his boss Metz (Alan Alda) to ask him why he continues to cover second-rate boxing matches and high school games and not professional events, Metz tells him, “I forget your pieces while I’m reading them. They’re a lot of typing…not much writing.”
For Erik, the problem is more than just wanting to make it to the big leagues. His late father was a beloved sports reporter on the radio, and no matter what Erik does, he can never seem to live up to his father’s legacy or get out from beneath his shadow. To make matters worse, he has been the same sort of husband and father as he has been a reporter. Separated from him wife, Joyce (Kathryn Morris) and son, Teddy (Dakota Goyo), Erik sees the most important things in life slipping from his grasp.
His big break arrives at the most inauspicious of moments. While leaving one fight in the ring, he encounters another on the street. There, several teenaged hoodlums are beating an old, homeless man they keep referring to as “The Champ” (Samuel L. Jackson). After they scatter, the Champ tells Erik in a grizzled, high-pitched voice that the nickname is from a pervious life when he was the successful professional boxer, Bob Satterfield. Erik is intrigued that this ragamuffin of a man on the ground in front of him was once a sports giant, long believed dead.
Captivated, Erik smells an incredible story. Bypassing his editor, he pitches the story to the paper’s Sunday magazine where it will get him the most visibility. The magazine likes the idea and Erik begins spending lots of time with the Champ, discussing his history over beers and a tape recorder. While there is no doubt that Erik is using Champ to further his own career, the two men become comfortable with each other, perhaps even friends. While Erik hopes the story will be his ticket out of pedestrian assignments, the Champ sees an opportunity to feel the warmth of fame one last time.
Erik’s instincts prove dead on. When the story runs, it catapults his career into the stratosphere. There is talk of a Pulitzer. Showtime comes calling. Erik is on top of the world.
But unfortunately, everything he wrote was a lie. And soon, everything he has worked so hard to build lies in tatters.
Like a good boxer dodging an incoming hit, the second half of Resurrecting the Champ bobs and weaves, going in a completely different direction than the opening rounds would seem to indicate. Evoking 2003’s Shattered Glass or the more recent scandal involving the supposed memoir “A Million Little Pieces,” Resurrecting the Champ becomes a morality play about the tension between fathers and sons, the lengths to which we will go for approval, the infinitesimal ethical compromises that lead to cataclysmic life collapses, and the redemptive power of forgiveness.
Based on a 1997 article by J.R. Moehringer, Resurrecting the Champ is directed by Rod Laurie, the former film critic turned director who wrote and helmed 2000’s exceptional political thriller, The Contender, about a he said/she said scandal implicating the highest office of the land. Lurie is a filmmaker fascinated by the repercussions of our ethical decision-making, the tenuous state of personal honor in the modern world, and the often exactingly high price demanded of integrity. Lurie continues those important examinations here, albeit on a lesser scale than the aforementioned corridors of national power.
Resurrecting the Champ is a strong, competent, assured film. If it has faults, it is an overly long running time and occasional lethargic pacing. Lurie brings no pizzazz to his direction, almost as if he prefers that the camera go completely unrecognized. While competent, is it, regrettably, uninspired. For some, Resurrecting the Champ may play like Erik’s writing — solid, if tame. For others, it will be an exercise in blessed restraint, refreshingly relying on substances over style.
While Josh Hartnett is a genuinely underrated, underappreciated actor who gives a strong performance as the ethically embattled Erik, much will and should be made of Jackson’s performance as Champ. Known for his tough guy roles, here Jackson’s persona melts into a meek and beaten down man with a bedraggled face weathered by years on the street. Though old, he still moves like a man in the ring — nimble and light on his feat, switching his balance this way and that as if the dance of the ring is the only way he knows how to move. Don’t be surprised if Jackson’s name is bandied about come the Academy Awards.
The supporting case are top-notch, most notably Alan Alda, Kathryn Morris (whose career Lurie launched with The Contender) and Rachel Nichols. Easily the best bit part, however, belongs to the completely unrecognizable Peter Coyote, as a crusty boxing manager.
While boxing films prove time and again to be one the most popular sports films, it would be a mistake to assume that Resurrecting the Champ is nothing more than a movie about a couple of guys exchanging blows. The real arena here is not a boxing ring, but the human soul, where the hard right does battle with the easy wrong. This is a film in which round after round will be played out in the innermost man, a struggle of conscience and expediency with very real repercussions for all involved.
To be certain, Erik is not the only person in this film who must confront his demons and wrestle with the consequences of his actions. The Champ too is a man drowning beneath a lie so large he can barely find himself anymore. His destitution on the street is an apt metaphor for his dissolute spiritual condition. Both Erik and Champ are stuck running in circles, both to and from the expectations of others, so desperate to be someone they’re not even if they have to compromise their souls to do it.
Erik’s fall from grace does not blindside the viewer and should not surprise even Erik. Erik is a man who tells little white lies and tall tales to his boss, co-workers, and son in order to make himself look better or grease the wheels of his success. But even white lies have a way of turning on their tellers and the dozens of small, seemingly innocuous compromises he makes throughout his life must eventually be reckoned with.
Resurrecting the Champ has much to say about the fallen state of humanity. But it also recognizes that how we get back up says almost as much, if not more, about us. Comparing the emotional nakedness of a writer on the page to the stark exposure of an athlete in the ring, Erik states that there comes a point when, “there’s no place to hide.” Erik is a man whose sins have found him in the most humiliating and public manner possible. His response to that exposure is what will decide if he will rise above the shadows and expectations of others to, at last, become a man, a husband, a father and a son.