Rod Lurie’s Resurrecting the Champ is a competently directed movie from a troublesome screenplay by Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett that just happens to have a performance from Samuel L. Jackson that raises it to improbable heights. Without Jackson—and a little help from Alan Alda and Peter Coyote—this would be another in the long line of instantly forgettable Josh Hartnett vehicles. (OK, so maybe The Black Dahlia wasn’t so forgettable, but that had to do with Brian De Palma and the ferocious delirium of the movie, not Hartnett.) This is truly Jackson’s show, and Jackson is the reason to see the movie. As a story, this fact-based assault on the tear ducts is strictly from the “What profiteth a man if he gain the whole world but loseth his soul?” school of sermonette writing.
Seeing this film, I was reminded of William Wellman’s Nothing Sacred (1937). In that picture Fredric March plays an unscrupulous newsman who specializes in things like passing off a shoeshine man as an Indian potentate. When he learns that a small-town girl (Carole Lombard) is dying of radium poisoning, he drags her to Manhattan and makes sure that there’s not a dry eye in the Big Apple over this tragic figure. The only problem is that she’s not dying of radium poisoning. She was misdiagnosed, but wasn’t about to pass up the chance of a trip to New York and being treated like a queen over such a minor quibble.
Well, in essence, Resurrecting the Champ is the same story—minus the laughs. It does have pages and pages of speech-making about journalistic ethics, not to mention daddy issues. Oh my, yes, this movie has daddy issues like a fourth-floor walk-up on the Lower East Side has roaches. Nearly everybody in the movie seems to have ‘em—and if they don’t, they’re working toward ‘em.
The pitch is this: Erik (Hartnett) is a sports writer, whose stuff is always being buried by his editor, Metz (Alda), because it lacks heart, style and just about anything else. The really bad thing is that Erik’s father (deceased) was a sports writing/broadcasting legend and junior is having a hard time living up to his legacy. Worse, Erik’s more talented wife, Joyce (Kathryn Morris, Mindhunters), has dumped him and taken their son, Teddy (newcomer Dakota Goyo), with her (do you see a kid with daddy issues in Teddy’s future?). But all this changes when Erik rescues a homeless person known as Champ (Jackson) from some frat boys who like to beat him up on an apparently regular basis. Champ tells Erik that he used to be heavyweight contender Bob Satterfield.
Erik—despite his supposed sports cred—doesn’t have a clue who Satterfield was, but recognizes a meal ticket when he sees one and sets about lionizing Champ, who of course becomes a celebrity, as does Erik. There’s just one hitch, and we all know what that is. Hell, the trailer spells out the fact that Champ isn’t who he claims to be (well, he’s got daddy issues, too). But Champ figures he’ll be whoever Erik wants him to be for the attention, the respect and a few beers. Possibly he even figures that if Erik is so credulous that he doesn’t even question his veracity, he deserves what he gets. The audience is certainly apt to, since Erik does almost nothing but lie, whine and finagle his way through most of the movie. But hey, it’s not like Erik is some cynical Fredric March newsman, right? After all, he’s got daddy issues.
The rest of the story is an assemblage of ethics speeches and implausible legalities (like overlooking the fact that you can’t be sued for libeling the dead) with even more implausible solutions. All this might work a little better if the film managed to make Hartnett’s character likeable, but it doesn’t. He’s always using or double-crossing someone to get what he wants, and the slightly Cro-Magnon-browed Hartnett doesn’t have enough personal charisma to compensate.
However, there’s this other side to the film: Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson’s Champ is a truly wonderful, utterly believable and fascinating creation. And, to give the writers their due, the character is brilliantly written, but it’s Jackson who brings Champ to life on the screen. He’s at once funny, tragic, pathetic and canny. Decked out in appallingly dirty clothes and dreadlocks and speaking in a raspy whisper of a voice, everything about Jackson feels authentic. Jackson is so good that he makes Hartnett seem interesting when they’re on-screen together. If you can wade through the high-toned moral stance and utter movie-ness of Resurrecting the Champ to get to Jackson’s performance, there at least you’ll find the real deal—and the reason that the movie is worth seeing. Rated PG-13 for some violence and brief language.