Resurrecting the Champ

“A writer, like a boxer, must stand alone.” This is the voiceover Eric Kernan (Josh Harnett) delivers to open Rod Lurie’s latest film, Resurrecting the Champ – a journalist-morality tale loosely based on J.R. Moehringer’s 1997 article of the same name. Kernan is a sports writer for the Denver Times and, as we can tell from that intro, not a great one (unlike Moehringer).

His editor (Alan Alda) rides him for “typing” instead of “writing”, and his estranged wife (Kathryn Morris) knows he can do better, but his focus on the prestige and glamour of the job makes his writing lazy and his research sloppy. At one point Kernan even remarks, “you’re only as good as the people you cover.” All the while, he steals sound bytes from his boss and lies to his six-year-old son about hobnobbing with sports elites like John Elway and Muhammad Ali.

Things aren’t looking good for Kernan until he rescues a homeless man, who goes by the name “Champ” (Samuel Jackson), claiming he’s Battlin’ Bob Satterfield. Though Kernan doesn’t recognize the name, despite being on the boxing beat, a little namedropping around the office reveals this former boxing star’s been assumed dead for years. Kernan sees the potential of the situation, his eyes glaze over at the possibilities, and he begins to write his career-making article. But his rise to stardom is a rocky one, and Kernan’s eagerness for fame and notoriety doesn’t go unpunished.

Lurie’s fourth feature film since leaving his work in film criticism is a mixed bag. The material is rife with substance and none of his actors pull their punches, but the screenplay tries for too much, and ends up with little more than a grasp full of palm. As if the previous two paragraphs weren’t enough story, Kernan’s father (a more famous and respected sportswriter than he) left when Eric was just a boy; Champ has his own father/son issues he grapples with; Kernan is trying to win back his wife, make his son proud of him, mislead his boss so he can write the story for a different magazine, deal with the advances from his research assistant and a Showtime exec (Teri Hatcher); there are heart attacks, drunken fights and more.

Lurie admits in the commentary (more on this later), where he thought he was adding layers, he sees now he was just adding unnecessary complexity. And with people like Alan Alda, Samuel Jackson, and David Paymer under his employ, a story this strong will get the layers he’s looking for no matter what.

Jackson, specifically, gives one of his best performances to date. His decrepit, booze-ridden Champ is superb. Without relying on homeless, alcoholic or boxing archetypes, Jackson crafts a figure who asks for neither our pity nor our shame. Through scene after scene, Jackson disappears into the visages of a man who continually makes mistakes but adapts to them admirably. Easily robbed of a nomination, Jackson’s indelible performance seems a mirror to Forrest Whitaker’s recent gem The Last King of Scotland. Both stuck in otherwise mediocre movies, they make the films worth watching – Whitaker through his controlled insanity, and Jackson his restrained hopelessness.

Additionally, Harnett delivers a solid performance, as well. Though he crumbles a bit as the melodrama builds, his brazen lethargy is spot on. Throughout the film, Kernan’s lust for instant gratification highlights the cracks in modern journalism, and how the Internet has intensified our need for instant gratification.

Though the cast and story are strong, the film falters, because instead of relying on the power of his actors, Lurie wanted everything to read well on the page. On the commentary, he recognizes this as a mistake and regrets his choices. He credited the original screenwriters and is displeased with many of his changes. Though apologies don’t sound like great commentary material, here it works quite well. The beauty of all critics, past or present, is their ability to see mistakes for what they are, and try not to repeat them. The rueful sentiment Lurie brings to his solo commentary is an egoless and unexpected DVD treat.

Though not sullen by any means, Lurie’s audio is a clear acknowledgement of artistic guilt. Throughout the two hours, Lurie points out scenes he should have cut, plot threads he should have dropped, editing he should have altered, even down to the film’s mis-marketing as a movie about homeless people – a welcome angle for a director’s commentary on a self-proclaimed flop. It made the critic in me proud.

It’s rare when film critics hang up their hat and become successful filmmakers. Although, “successful” is quite subjective, the transition from critic to critiqued is not an easy one. By nature, critics hold everyone to nigh-impossible standards, and understand the acceptable (though fallacious) contradiction when they themselves fail to meet such criteria. And though Lurie’s critical career may not be the best model of our realm (it is, believe it or not, atypical for a critic to call Danny DeVito a “testicle with arms”), throughout the commentary, he shows such humble understanding of his film’s shortcomings, I immediately gravitate towards his demeanor. Because we’re never as good as we’d like to be.

Its faults aside, Resurrecting the Champ is an interesting tale about the intent of lying and the strengths of good old-fashioned work. Though the ending is utterly manufactured, Lurie’s commentary becomes its own ending; and, you know, like a boxer, as well as a writer, the director/editor/writer/audio-commentator must stand alone.

RATING 6 / 10