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Hard-hitting performances in 'Resurrecting the Champ'

August 24, 2007|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

The drama "Resurrecting the Champ" opens with an analogy between writing and boxing. Both activities require you to put your talent forward and stand alone.

It's good connective tissue for a movie about an old forgotten boxer and a struggling young sportswriter who develop a strangely symbiotic relationship. Directed by Rod Lurie ("The Contender"), "Resurrecting" delivers a heckuva story marred by some credibility problems but lands the majority of its punches via subtly powerful performances and a moving undercard of paternal connection.

Josh Hartnett stars as a Denver Post scribe named Erik Kernan Jr. whose father was a legendary boxing announcer on the radio. Though still in his 20s, he's reached critical points in both his personal and professional lives and is beginning to give off a whiff of desperation.

He's separated from his wife, Joyce (Kathryn Morris), a more successful journalist who also works at the newspaper, and is struggling to maintain a relationship with his 6-year-old son, Teddy (Dakota Goyo). His exacting, old-school editor, Metz (Alan Alda), is unimpressed with Erik's reporting, which he describes as "a lot of typing, not much writing," routinely buries his stories and isn't about to let him off the boxing beat any time soon to cover the more glamorous pro football Broncos or pro basketball Nuggets.

Just as Erik seems out of gambits, he stumbles across a homeless man in an alley being beaten by some young jerks. Erik chases the kids off and learns that the man calls himself Champ and claims to be a former boxer named Battlin' Bob Satterfield, who came within a fight or two of the world championship in the 1950s.

As the pugilist, Samuel L. Jackson chisels an impressively detailed performance from a character that might have easily fallen into caricature. Jackson instills the grizzled ex-fighter with a grace and pride that transcend the rags he wears. Charming and heart-rending, Champ drinks and suffers from a career of blows to the head but is surprisingly lucid, able to recall his bouts with startling clarity.

Erik smells not just a story but a career-maker. He steps up to the material with previously unseen zeal and in the process develops a complex relationship with Champ that knocks loose some of his own baggage.

Screenwriters Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett were inspired by a similar 1997 article by former Los Angeles Times reporter J.R. Moehringer. Bortman and Burnett deploy a fairly significant what-if scenario in dramatizing the nonfiction article and amp up the parallels between the reporter and the pugilist mostly for the good, but some of their choices hinder the movie.

There's too much reliance on coincidence as a means of speeding up the story, and the depiction of Erik's journalism skills leaves a lot to be desired. The manner in which his story comes together is not altogether believable, and the eventual moral struggle is stretched to the brink.

What's more interesting is the way the filmmakers reveal Erik's personal flaws, his motivation to pursue a career in the shadow of a daunting, unknowable father. Erik has the habit of telling those around him, including his son, what he thinks they want to hear, making him hard to root for.

Fortunately, Hartnett is extremely likable, and he more than holds his own with Jackson. As the film progresses, Hartnett helps the character evolve even when the script dangles him excessively over an emotional edge. Lurie also gets strong supporting performances from Alda, David Paymer (as another editor) and an unrecognizable Peter Coyote as a boxing old-timer.

Boxing scenes, shown in flashback, are used sparingly but efficiently, evoking the Champ's era when he fought the likes of Ezzard Charles and sparred with Rocky Marciano. The film sacrifices some of Moehringer's aesthetic appreciation for the sport but sticks to his main themes.

Most affecting of which is the strong hold fathers and sons have over one another even from the grave. The intertwined search for one's male identity as both a father and a son gets its hooks into us in ways we overlook or would like to ignore. What's particularly fascinating is how the mutual yearning for approval stretches in both directions. "Resurrecting the Champ," despite its shortcomings, evocatively projects these feelings.



MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violence and brief language. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. In general release.

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