Based on the Los Angeles Times Magazine story by J.R. Moehringer. Directed by Rod Lurie. (Yari Film Group Releasing/Phoenix Pictures, 2007, Color, 111 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG-13).
As redemption tales, boxing movies more than hold their own alongside war pictures, Bible epics, and tough-guy teachers who turn around inner-city classrooms. What makes movies like Rocky, Raging Bull, The Great White Hope, Cinderella Man, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Million Dollar Baby, and The Set-Up resonate with audiences goes way deeper than their underdog champions.
In fact, I cannot think of one movie about a prizefighter that hasn’t been a tale not only of defeating the odds, but also of the hero battling the demons of inner weaknesses. These stories inspire us even when they end in tragedy, because they dramatize in a pure, elemental way, through the crucible of the fight game, the struggles we all face in life. The fire in the belly that moves our working-class hero to step into the ring and get beaten to a pulp—yet emerge victorious—doesn’t smolder in a full stomach. It comes from a burning hunger that only those in desperate circumstances know.
In Resurrecting the Champ,sportswriter Erik Kernan, Jr. (Josh Hartnett) has that same hunger. The paradox is that it doesn’t show in his writing: Kernan’s dispatches for the Denver Times are dull and flavorless. He hopes for better assignments than covering down-the-card bouts, but his hard-nosed editor (played sour and dour by Alan Alda) buries Erik’s stories in the back of the sport’s pages.
“I appreciate what you’re doing, but your copy—it’s unimpressive. A lot of typing, not much writing,” he tells the young reporter. “I forget your pieces while I’m reading them.”
One wintry night after a match, Kernan stumbles across an ancient vagrant (Samuel L. Jackson) lying in an alleyway. The old man had just been used as a punching bag by some goons who mockingly call him “Champ.”
“You say you’re the Champ, what are you talking about?” Kernan asks, helping Champ to his feet.
“I’m ‘Battling Bob’ Satterfield. Number three in the world!”
Kernan finds in the old-timer’s unlikely riches-to-rags tale a great story that, he suddenly realizes, could reverse his own fortunes on the newspaper. He returns to the alley to meet with Champ and get his life story for a feature he begins to write.
“Resurrecting the Champ” is one of this year’s best movies.
Bob Satterfield hasn’t been himself lately. The fire in his
belly has long ago been extinguished. He’s lost his career, his family, and finally, his home. As Kernan sits across from him in a deli booth, Champ regales him with stories about his heyday in the ring during the 1950s. Names of legends roll off his tongue: Jake LaMotta, Ezzard Charles, Floyd Patterson. As the homeless man relives his past glories, though, he doesn’t seem as hopeless as his circumstances might indicate. A sense of pride and drive reemerge on his face when he relates to Kernan how he beat heavyweight legend Rocky Marciano in a sparring contest.
When the conversation turns to his family, though, Champ has only regrets. It’s been decades since his own son talked to him, so ashamed is he of his father. A bond develops between Champ and Kernan over issues of fatherhood: When Kernan was a boy, his own father—a famous sportscaster, now deceased—walked out on him and his mom. Today, Kernan still labors under the omnipresent shadow of his absentee father as the veterans in his trade always compare him to the old man.
With his marriage falling apart, Kernan seems fated to repeat his bleak family history. Yet, he remains determined to play an everyday part in the life of his young son. He has built himself up in his youngster’s eyes as a famous sportswriter who plays golf with Muhammad Ali and pals around with John Elway. Although at times I couldn’t buy the low-key Hartnett as a sportswriter, he is very convincing as a dad struggling to become the hero that his boy imagines him to be.
Now, for the first time in his career, Kernan throws himself into his work, using his story about Satterfield to leverage a better position on the newspaper. His fight coverage improves, too, when he brings Champ to cover bouts with him at ringside. As a boxer is getting the stuffing pounded out of him by a seemingly superior opponent, Champ correctly predicts that the contender will take the match. “He had that ‘figured-out’ look in his eyes,” he confides to Kernan. “I seen it too many times in my opponents’ eyes.”
However, while researching Satterfield’s past, Kernan keeps running into roadblocks and dead ends. There is next to nothing about Bob Satterfield on the Internet, and his archivist (Rachel Nichols) finds little more in the newspaper’s morgue. Half his queries to old-timers in the fight game result in comebacks like, “Bob Satterfield? I thought he was dead.” When he telephones Satterfield’s only known survivor, his son in Chicago, all he gets is an expletive deleted and a dial tone.
Still, Kernan forges ahead with the pathos-filled story of Champ’s fall on hard times—the story he’s sure will bring him a Pulitzer Prize. And in fact, when “Resurrecting the Champ” appears in the Denver Times’s magazine, it catches fire. Overnight, Kernan’s whole life turns around. Job offers suddenly abound. He even lands an appearance as ringside announcer for a Showtime boxing special.
But when an old fighter named Tommy emerges from the past and into Satterfield’s life, Kernan begins to see the Pulitzer drift beyond his reach.
Jackson gives an Oscar-caliber performance as the “Champ.”
Resurrecting the Champ is one of this year’s best movies. More than a boxing picture, it’s also a heartfelt story about fathers and the legacies they leave their sons. Samuel L. Jackson gives an Oscar-caliber performance as Champ, and he more than carries Hartnett for the fifteen rounds of this gut-wrenching flick. I doubt any other actor except Jackson’s mentor, Morgan Freeman, could have brought such dignity and emotional range to the role. His portrayal was clearly of the “method” school—he truly lived this role, never giving the appearance of acting. But his performance is so convincing because the method itself is invisible.
Along with Alda’s excellent supporting effort are solid performances from Dakota Goyo as Kernan’s son, Teddy; from Peter Coyote, who turns in a memorable cameo as a crusty boxing promoter; and from Teri Hatcher as a skanky producer for Showtime.
Loosely based on J. R. Moehringer’s Los Angeles Times article of the same title, Resurrecting the Champ is a movie that delivers a great message without becoming a “message movie.” Its one simple lesson—that honesty is the greatest virtue a father can model for his son—holds the key to the destinies of the film’s two protagonists and of the lives they touch.
As a study of crushed dreams and personal redemption, Resurrecting the Champ belongs in the same company as The Verdict and The Browning Version. Its depiction of life’s sometimes-fleeting triumphs and irreversible errors is presented with sincerity and nobility, but never with pity.