Resurrecting The Champ

2007, Movie, PG-13, 111 mins


Inspired by Los Angeles Magazine's Pulitzer Prize-nominated article by J.R. Moehringer about a homeless man who claimed to be a once-famous boxer, Rod Lurie's film never fully reconciles the story about newsroom ethics with the sentimental drama about bad dads and bereft sons.

Erik Kernan Jr (Josh Hartnett), Moehringer's fictionalized stand-in, is a sports reporter for The Denver Times who is perpetually in the shadow of his late father, a legendary radio sportscaster, and his estranged wife, Joyce (Kathryn Morris), an editor at the same paper and a vastly better journalist. New editor-in-chief Metz (Alan Alda) is unimpressed with his work and, to top it all off, Kernan dreads the thought of being less than a hero in his 6-year-old son's (Dakota Goyo) eyes, which leads him to concoct stories of friendship with sports stars. Erik needs a break, a flashy story he can ride to the big time, and he stumbles across it in an alley in the form of Champ (Samuel L. Jackson), a homeless derelict who says he's "Battling" Bob Satterfield, a heavyweight once reckoned a potential champion but undermined by a glass jaw. Erik does a little research and, to his astonishment, uncovers evidence that supports Champ's claim; what's more, the old man has moves, however diminished, and an insider's eye for the sweet science's nuances. Erik cannily parlays his human-interest story into an assignment, sneakily bypassing Metz for a freelance placement in the higher-profile Denver Magazine — lying to editor Whitley (David Paymerand) in the process — and insinuating himself into Champ's confidence with a mix of flattery and calculated self-deprecation. Not that it's all that hard, given the man's condition and circumstances: It's clear that Champ took a few too many blows to the head and, on the evidence of his strangled voice, the throat as well. The story is published to acclaim, and it looks as though Erik is on his way. Unfortunately, Champ's story isn't true.

Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett's screenplay makes a significant change to Moehringer's story, hence "Erik Kernan": Moehringer discovered the truth about Champ while writing, and incorporated it into his Pulitzer prize-nominated story. That said, better journalists than the movie's Kernan have been duped into enormous, embarrassing errors — consider the Hitler Diaries or the cult of fictitious literary personality J.T. LeRoy. The movie's real glass jaw is Hartnett, who's too callow to pull off the mix of self-interest, anxious ambition and emotional vulnerability on matters concerning fathers and sons, which blinds him to aspects of Champ's story that a more objective writer would have flagged. Hartnett just seems sullen and sneaky, and the powerhouse performances that Jackson, Alda and Paymer deliver without apparent effort underscore the weaknesses in Hartnett's characterization. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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