"In This Corner-- !"
Forty-Two World Champions Tell Their Stories
by Peter Niels Heller with an introduction by Muhammad Ali
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
"Resurrecting the Champ"
You could say that young sportswriter Erik Kernan (Josh Harnett), has a greater need for resurrection than the down-for-the-count ex-boxer he wants to write about. Kernan is having difficulties upholding his dead dad's sterling reputation on the Denver Post.
When Erik first came upon the man they call "Champ" (Samuel L. Jackson), the homeless resident has been violently attacked by a small gang of vicious delinquents trying to prove their manhood with an act of great cowardice typical of goons and bullies. After suffering their blows, their victim lies nearly helpless on the grounds of his minimal stakeout in a downtown alley. Such is the life he's adapted to with stoic resolve.
Kernan tries to help but is rebuffed by the proud squatter who identifies himself as "Battling Bob Satterfield" (the real heavyweight boxer who went from being a Chicago Golden Gloves Champion to narrowly missing a shot at a title fight in the fifties). This is a biopic about two men: the boxer and the man who wrote about him.
But the proposed article wasn't exactly greeted with cheers. The idea of Kernan working up a story on the homeless residue of the boxing world is rejected by his editor, Metz (Icy Alan Alda), whose disappointment in his young sports reporter's writing abilities is growing into a possible lay off (despite his protestation to the contrary). Kernan's career is on the ropes. Besides, isn't Bob Satterfield dead?
On the personal side of Kernan's life, he's taking some jabs as well. He and wife Joyce (Katherine Morris), also a reporter on the paper (though a more highly regarded one) are separated and, now, all he wants is to spend time with his 4-year old son Teddy (Dakota Goyo), whom he adores and who lives with mom. She doesn't make it easy but, recognizing the dominant role daddy plays in the tyke's life and development, agrees to his visits more often than not.
Looking for a quick bounce up from the professional disaster he's facing, Kernan has a meeting with Mr. Whitley (David Paymer), the editor of the magazine section. Whitley isn't knocked out by Kernans's style or output record either, but when the young writer comes up with that human interest angle on the all-but-forgotten boxer, the bell rings. Whitley can barely suppress his excitement. "How soon can you have it?" he asks breathlessly.
Thus starts a series of taped interviews with Champ -- once the issue of trust is established with Kernan. The writer elicits great amounts of detail about "Champ's" ring history, his personal life, his crippling punch, the near misses, bad luck, and the factors that led to an early retirement, all of which illuminates a corner of boxing history.
Augmented by historical facts dug up by researcher Polly (Rachel Nichols), Kernan puts it together and it turns into a powerful cover story, bringing glory to all involved, most especially the magazine section itself. Kernan suddenly knows what it feels like to receive the cheers of the crowd. The sports and publishing worlds are impressed. Talk of a Pulitzer Prize for journalism rings in his ears. He's suddenly hot stuff and he's got to balance newfound fame with the disciplines of normal life. He appears on TV interviews, then gets a gig on Showtime as a boxing commentator.
His first assignment is to cover a Las Vegas bout on camera with the winner -- like he's Jim Lapley on HBO. He ends his broadcast with a personal love note to Teddy, who's watching every frame of his dad's telecast with mom and pals. Following that, the photogenic dynamo gets a bigger offer from Showtime casting director Andrea Flak (properly flamboyant Terry Hatcher). Now an even greater hero to Teddy than ever before and with Champ pleased as well, the resurrection does, indeed, seem to apply to the two symbiotically attached men. A virtual Cinderella story for the macho side.
Until, that is, a knockout punch slams the idyll of success. The newfound fame is subjected to a cold shower when a small piece of evidence shows up like a roundhouse from hell. I can't give up what it is, here, but suffice it to say that Kernan's own words come back to haunt him. In writing about the similarities between a boxer and a writer in terms of them both being one-man occupations, he observed that "It's you that's out there and there's no place to hide."
It's all based on Angeles-based reporter J.R. Moehringer's article, which Phoenix Pictures' Mike Medavoy read and bought in 1997, putting it into the laps of screenwriters Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett to develop. It came down to Rod Lurie ("The Contender") to direct, which he does with his established taste and balance but without hit-making chemistry. Cinematographer Adam Kane was there to bring fine visual reality to the newsman's beat and grit to the hard times of the retired boxer's.
Hatcher's brief stint as a supercharged behind-the-scenes shaker in the TV world of sports is a juicy bit of exaggerated reality for the sake of entertainment values that should add some juice to her own career. Little Goyo's performance is nicely concentrated within the framework of a boy's concerns. Screenwriters' too-frequent exaggerations of a tyke's awareness level and/or "cuteness quotient" are, thankfully, subdued.
Supporting players are consistently top-notch, notably Kathryn Morris and Alan Alda. The cast member who gave me the biggest surprise and delight, however, was Peter Coyote, whose turn as an old, crusty, insistently methodical preserver of the historical archive of boxing, could have stolen the entire show had he been given a chance to do it. Watch for him but don't be surprised if he fools you.
Jackson is notable for his absorption into a character, both in style, look and the tonal shift of his voice. Everything about him is a study in degradation leaving him a man with nothing but pride to contend for and, gradually, losing the battle.
While the screen time is allotted close to evenly to the two leads, a couple of extra rounds went into the life and concerns of the young turk, a role which Hartnett is manifestly suitable for. Here's an actor who has, from the start, proven how much more he is than great looking.
My initial reaction to him when he appeared in "Pearl Harbor" was that he's a Cary Grant type and I still get that vibe. Though he has a presence all his own, I see similarities in screen-holding power. His subsequent appearances, in "Black Hawk Down" and "Hollywood Homicide" only confirm it. That he's a careful study in a range of characters is incontestable after "Sin City," "Lucky Number Slevin" and "The Black Dahlia." This is a fully endowed movie star.
Lurie, in his return to the big screen after a 5-year TV digression ("Line of Fire" and "Commander in Chief"), exhibits fine regard in story material and a match-up of talent. But what does it add up to as a movie? It's like Satterfield, who was good enough to come close to a title fight but not good enough to earn one. This film is a contender that doesn't quite take a championship belt. But, then, titles are elusive things, as the overstated one for this film attests.
~~ Jules Brenner