Resurrecting the Champ|
Samuel L. Jackson, Teri Hatcher
Split decision - 3 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Fight films are as diverse and as hit or miss as real life boxers. Some films, like the feel good underdog story of "Rocky," float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Others bloat like a butterball and sting like a flea, such as Barbara Streisand's punchless pugilistic spoof "The Main Event." Then there are gritty, fact-based dramas like "The Harder They Fall," "The Great White Hope," and "Raging Bull," films that successfully mix the brutality of the sport with the realities of life. "Resurrecting the Champ" mixes fiction with fact and is more pretender than contender, but it features a knockout performance by Samuel L. Jackson that deserves a ringside seat.
The son of a legendary radio personality, Denver Times sports reporter Erik Kernan (a bland Josh Hartnett), has an impressive pedigree, but lacks a killer�s instinct in his own articles, so much so that his editor, Ralph Metz (an equally nondescript Alan Alda) says, �I forget your pieces while I�m reading them. A lot of typing, not much writing.�
Erik is similarly floundering in his role as father to his adorning son, Teddy (annoying moppet Dakota Goyo), lying that he knows celebrities like John Elway in order to win his love. He�s already failed as a husband. His inability to deal with his wife�s success as one of the paper�s most respected reporters has left them living under separate roofs. Having taken too many of life�s low blows, Erik knows he needs a haymaker to save his family and career.
His chance at the big time arrives in the person of a man everyone calls �Champ� (Samuel L. Jackson, giving a heavyweight performance). When they first meet, Erik chases away a group of drunken teens beating on the dreadlocked, homeless old man. �Everybody likes to beat the champ,� he says. Erik discovers the man was once a professional boxer, �Battlin�� Bob Satterfield (�Number three in the world�), who�s long believed dead. Satterfield was a crowd-pleasing, bruising boxer in the 50s who fought Ezzard Charles, Jake LaMotta, and Floyd Patterson. The three aforementioned boxers were champions. Despite being called �Champ,� Satterfield never got a chance to fight for the heavyweight title. One of the hardest punchers to ever step into the ring � he was nicknamed the �Chicago Sleep Inducer,� and was said to have embalming fluid in either hand. But Satterfield had a glass jaw�. It was chill-or-be-chilled. Every time Satterfield got close to a title shot he�d lose a big fight in entertaining fashion. A detached retina ended his career. High living, a busted marriage and booze nearly ended his life, and eventually left him sleeping on the street. He used to dine in fine restaurants, now he�s eating out of garbage cans.
Erik senses Satterfield�s story could be his chance at a championship payday. Bypassing Metz, he offers the story to the Denver Times Sunday Magazine, where it�ll get more visibility. The story of Satterfield�s rise and fall will make Erik as famous as his dad, and give Champ another chance to hear the roar of the crowd again. Erik gets most of his background information from following Champ around Santa Ana. Despite Satterfield�s dissipated appearance, he vividly remembers breaking Rocky Marciano�s nose in training camp, losing a two rounder to Ezzard Charles, and hitting Jake LaMotta so hard �The Raging Bull� never forgot the impression he left on his jaw. Erik�s perplexed by Satterfield�s son�s dismissive anger at the idea of being interviewed, but he does manage to get in touch with one of Satterfield�s most famous opponents -- LaMotta:
Erik: Mr. LaMotta� I�m writing a story about an old opponent of yours, Bob Satterfield.
LaMotta: Bob Satterfield was one of the hardest punchers who ever lived.
Erik: Well, I met him out here in Santa Ana. He�s hit some hard times and he�s sleeping on park benches.
LaMotta: You sure it�s him? I heard he was dead.
The article lands on the front page of the Denver Times Sunday Magazine and is an instant sensation. Erik�s sudden fame seems to solve his problems. Offended he wasn�t offered the story first, Metz nonetheless admits Erik�s article is an exceptional piece of writing. The attention the article generates helps him mend his relationship with his wife, and Teddy�s so proud of him he volunteers his dad to speak at his class career day. Andrea Flak (campy Terri Hatcher), a producer for ESPN, offers Erik a high profile boxing commentator gig. Suddenly it�s good to be the King�
Then Erik�s reputation and his rise to fame gets KO.�ed by a punch he never saw coming.
A phone call from Ike Epstein, one of Satterfield�s former promoters (a heavily disguised Peter Coyote, giving a championship caliber performance), plants a credible seed of doubt. Like LaMotta, Epstein says Satterfield�s dead, and he can prove it.
Samuel L. Jackson, who�s been mailing it in a bit too much lately in inane films like �Snakes on a Plane,� and �Black Snake Moan� (stay away from reptiles, Sam), gives a gold glove performance. Is a he a man living a lie, or the real Battlin� Bob?
Jackson did his research in preparing for the role. Many ex-boxers develop some form of dementia (I�m looking forward to that one!) and their voices get raspy from the repeated blows they take to the head. Jackson�s �Champ� has a sandy, whispery delivery. He moves and bounces on his feet like an ex-fighter still dodging his opponents in the ring, bobbing and weaving, even as he pushes the shopping cart containing his belongings. Jackson�s portrayal is heartbreaking and absorbing. Had the film fared better he might have been nominated for an Oscar.
Having boxed -- (11 knockouts in 11 fights and 20% vision in my left eye to prove it), I can vouch for Jackson�s accurate portrayal of an �opponent,� the type of boxer you bet on on the way up and bet against on the way down. He�s game, he�ll always put on a good show because he hits like an angry mule, but he�ll never be champ because he can�t take a punch. One of my proudest � and saddest � moments as an amateur boxer was winning a battle of undefeated power punchers by stopping my opponent�s advance with one well placed shot to the Adam�s apple. The blow caused him to automatically raise his gloves to his throat, leaving him defenseless long enough for me to deliver the best left hook I ever landed. He fell like an axed Redwood, landing so hard he broke his nose, and was unconscious for the longest ten minutes of my life. Years later I saw him at a fundraiser. I thought he�d want a rematch right there in the rotunda. Instead he introduced me to his wife with pride, because he�d been the only boxer to last into the third round against �Mad Dog� Jefferson, and like Rocky Marciano, I�d retired undefeated, a �champ.� (Yes, they called me �Mad Dog.� But I was more like angry puppy.) Jackson�s �Champ� has the same respect for the men who trashed him, and he still loves the sport, even though it left him penniless and homeless.
Part of the film�s failure to go the distance at the box office can be thrown at the feet of the other actors. Josh Hartnett�s Erik is as empty as the limp prose he passes off in his columns. Hartnett�s career has benefited from his heartthrob looks and an occasional passable performance (check him out as the hero in his next film, the frozen north vampire thriller �30 Days of Night�). In �Champ,� he�s a fringe contender. His performance shows promise, but he�s workmanlike and fades in the later rounds.
As Joyce Kernan, Erik�s estranged wife, Kathryn Morris is given little more to do than say �I told you so� when Erik�s credibility is on the ropes. Playing Ralph Metz, Alan Alda checks in with another wholesome but snore-inducing performance. Alda�s best facet doesn�t show up on screen. In interviews the rest of the cast complimented Alda for being such a sweetheart to work with. Rachel Nichols (star of the recent stalker film �P2�) gives a peppy performance as Polly, the newspaper�s resourceful researcher who develops more than a passing interest in Erik.
Aside from Jackson, the one actor who holds his own in the ring is Peter Coyote, barely recognizable as crusty fight promoter Ike Epstein, a relic from the 50s who arranged some of Satterfield�s fights. I saw Coyote�s name in the credits at the beginning and didn�t realize what role he�d played until the movie was over. Pasty, gruff, with a bad haircut, plastic glasses and a wardrobe the Salvation Army would reject, Coyote�s half Jewish, half gob accent and mannerisms hit home. I used to run into flesh peddlers like Epstein in gyms; they usually had a fifth grade education, owed some bookie a mint, and were as hardheaded as a granite statue. They either robbed their boxers of everything but their trunks, or treated their charges better than their own sons. Coyote�s character represents the latter. When he sees Erik�s article on Battlin� Bob Satterfield, he sets out to clear his fighter�s name. Like Jackson, Coyote obvious studied for his role. As a result, his brief appearance is the only Jackson-less scene in the film worth remembering.
For the sake of the storyline the writers, Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett, feigned to the left of truth with some of the facts. The movie is indeed based on an L.A. Times magazine article by writer J.R. Moehringer, who initially believed he�d found former fighter Bob Satterfield in 1997. But before he turned the article in, Moehringer checked his facts and discovered that his �Champ� was actually one of Satterfield�s opponents, Tommy Harrison. Harrison not only borrowed Battlin� Bob�s name in the ring, he�d also posed as him on the street, raking up a few arrests while Satterfield was enjoying his retirement in Paris. In the film, it�s Ike Epstein who throws the first counter punch at Erik�s credibility; in reality it was boxer Ernie Terrell (his sister, Jean, replaced Diana Ross in the Supremes) who cast the initial doubt.
That leaves me to ask one big honking question about �Resurrecting the Champ.� If Polly, the Times� crack researcher, can find background information on Satterfield�s career and can even come up with extremely rare footage of one of Satterfield�s fights, how come she couldn�t locate his obituary? Yeah, I know. It would have really messed with the plot.
�Resurrecting The Champ� begins as a boxing film�see how the mighty have fallen. In the middle rounds it shifts to a story about fathers and sons as Erik tries to repair his relationship with Teddy, and the Champ relates his woeful tale of how his own son turned his back on him. In the final rounds it becomes a story of redemption, successfully bobbing and weaving it�s through some obvious factual pitfalls. The ending isn�t a knockout; it�s more like a split decision, but Jackson and Coyote�s performances make �Resurrecting The Champ� a worthy contender for your attention.