The press notes for Resurrecting The Champ emphasize at length how well-suited director Rod Lurie was for the job. It's a film about boxing; he boxed at West Point. It's a film about journalism; he's a former entertainment writer. It's a film; he's a former film critic. But Lurie might understand the material better than most for another reason: Like his protagonist, he seems ambitious beyond his means. Lurie's string of strident, struggling-for-relevance political films and TV shows (including the flop Commander In Chief, which he created and was fired from), display an aggressive self-importance that somehow never propelled Lurie to household-namedom. Resurrecting The Champ is a very different project, but it feels like more of the same: a story that works well, except when it's loudly proclaiming its own emotional depth and significance.
Josh Hartnett plays a Denver Times sports writer who, like Lurie, comes across as a competent workhorse craving the glory of a more talented man; buried on the back pages, and stuck covering the boxing beat, he chafes at editor Alan Alda, who thanks him for "filling pages," but delivers a withering assessment of his skills: "A lot of typing, not much writing." So when Hartnett encounters a battered, mildly unsavory homeless man (Samuel L. Jackson) who claims to be beloved ex-heavyweight contender "Battling" Bob Satterfield, he sneaks behind Alda's back to David Paymer at the Sunday magazine section, and pitches him on a touching, expansive personal profile of the fallen champ. From there, the story squiggles off in many directions, as Hartnett cozies up to the genial but opaque Jackson, clings to his relationship with his young son and ex-wife, finesses his treachery at work, and permits himself some smug pride at finally working on a story as good as he thinks he is. Then the story hits print, and evidence begins to suggest that Jackson might not be Satterfield after all.
Some of Resurrecting The Champ's best moments come from the is-he-or-isn't-he plotline, and the way Hartnett bristles and sweats over the question, seemingly more protective of his journalistic-hero self-image than his actual reporter's ethic. The cast is generally excellent, but Hartnett in particular comes across as convincingly complicated, alternately reprehensible and sympathetic. But the film pushes much too hard for that sympathy, wallowing in preachy monologues and weepy confessionals. And all the pointed, loudly emphasized parallels about fathers and sons feel awkward and overdetermined on top of an already complex story. Champ is a solid effort with a lot going for it, but it suggests that Lurie still isn't willing to relax and let viewers interpret his films, instead of telling them what they're thinking and seeing. Apparently there's a reason he isn't better known.