Review: “Champ” lacks punch

“Resurrecting the Champ,” a story about the past-due maturation of a sports journalist, finds its main narrative on the ropes, as both Josh Hartnett, who plays Erik Kernan, the journalist, and script are of little support to each other.

Kernan’s wife (Kathryn Morris) asks for aseparation—possibly it’s because he’s unsuccessful (now that’s a sobering thought)— and he's just a comma away from divorce (even more sobering).

Erik's late father, who called fights on the radio, adding editorial commentary on the so-called sport, was legendary for his lyricism. We can assume that this man, idolized by his son, conjured the most vivid of images, bringing the smoked-filled atmosphere, the crowds and glory of the bout, into people’s living rooms. His legacy, like his broadcasts, was bigger than life, blocking the light, leaving his son working in the shadow.

Erik, a sports reporter for the Denver Times, inherited neither his father’s talent nor passion, yet yearns for the spotlight and adulation. The result is copious amounts of copy—stories churned out with the efficiency of a machine. Unfortunately his stories sound like they were written by one.

His editor (Alan Alda) confesses, “I forget your pieces while reading them.” As a consequence, his assignments consist of increasingly bush league events, some of which don’t even find their way into the paper.

So we have Josh Hartnett, a bland actor, cast as a dispassionate reporter, with a script that leaves them both appearing as somewhat clueless. To his young son, from whom he needs admiration, Erik offers fictions of personal relationships with sports stars such as Muhammad Ali and John Elway. The man has issues.

Fortunately for Erik and the script, the reporter discovers a homeless, punch-drunk ex-boxer (Samuel L. Jackson) in a back alley. “The Champ” as he refers to himself, also doubles in the role of Atlas, carrying both Hartnett and the film.

Jackson nimbly bobs and weaves though a stereotype that could have left him in a clinch with the cliché of an alcoholic has-been. But through a deft performance, we come to be touched by “The Champ,” who knows how to take a punishing in and out of the ring, having made a profoundpeace with a life of misery.

When Erik discovers the back-alley bum to actually be Battling Bob Satterfield, a former heavy weight contender thought to have died, he senses this could be “the story”—the one that establishes his career.

The doors, on which he has long been knocking, start to open when editors hear of his find—this riches to rags saga. Blinded by desperation, he accepts an offer, unknown to his own editor, to write the story for the paper’s weekend magazine section.

The story runs, with the boxer’s picture on the cover, bringing Erik more exposure and offers than he can handle, including the opportunity to be an on-camera sports analyst for Showtime. The glory recedes as quickly as it arrived, when he discovers a serious error in the story.

The bulb that goes on in his head, shines a bit dimmer than one might predict from this graduate of a prestigious journalism school. But given his character, it’s hard to know what to expect.

Jackson, however, makes this picture worthwhile.

He shines in the role of a fighter who’s taken too many shots, in the ring and from the bottle. The Champ schools Erik in unanticipated moments of clarity, which we come to realize, are more frequent than he lets on. A seasoned survivor, he makes the most of the situation through the guise of who the reporter wants him to be.

In Hartnett’s defense, it's hard to imagine anyone bringing continuity to Erik’s character, whose multiple and overlapping deficiencies are far too confusing to explain, let alone solve in one story.

But I wouldn’t count on a sequel.

Grade: C-

Lester Gray reviews movies for Read all the Examiner critics' reviews.

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