That's about the only bad news I have to share about Resurrecting the Champ, none of whose principal characters I'd ever heard of. Here they are, at least in the film's fictionalized world: Erik (Josh Hartnett), an ambitious but not all that talented sports reporter for The Denver Times; Metz (Alan Alda), sports editor for the paper who won't give Erik a break and instead offers him advice such as "fix your weaknesses"; Erik's ex-wife Joyce (Kathryn Morris), still his friend and confidante and a well-respected writer at the paper; Whitley (David Paymer), the Los Angeles Times Magazine editor who gives Erik a chance on a story that Metz turned down; and Champ (Samuel L. Jackson), the washed-up prizefighter who's now homeless in Denver.
It's right after Champ is pummeled by some punks that Erik finds and slips him a few bucks; Champ tells the eager reporter that he's Battling Bob Satterfield, a former contender who did some rounds with Jake LaMotta and Rocky Marciano back in the '50s.
Metz passes on Satterfield's story; Whitley green-lights it, though only after saying, "I thought he was dead."
Nope, he's right there in his alley, dragging around his cart, staying away from his ex-wife's house, no longer wondering about the son who turned away from him years ago. Satterfield -- let's just call him Champ -- could easily go unrecognized as Samuel Jackson to any viewers coming in after the credits. He's a ragged mess, with long dreadlocks, a map of age lines all over his face, and the ever-moving gait of a fighter -- he kind of jabs and feints as he walks. And Jackson has raised his gravelly voice about an octave, which helps him to disappear even more into the part.
His backstory is related in person to Erik, on tape recordings made by Erik, and via flashbacks to his glory days (and not so glorious days) in the ring.
But the story isn't just about the Champ. It's about Erik nearing despair over his career -- and about how this story becomes the equivalent of his own title shot. It's also about Erik's broken home and his wish that he could be closer with his ex-wife, and a better father to their son, Teddy (the definitely too cute Dakota Goyo).
In fact, Champ evolves into a study of father-son relationships: Erik and Teddy, Erik and his late sports-radio star father; Erik and -- you guessed it -- Champ, in a strange sort of surrogate father role.
It's a film that sets itself up to be an exercise in cloying sentimentality. Surprisingly, aside from a couple of the Erik-Teddy scenes, it avoids going there. Hartnett nicely plays his part as a usually high-spirited, smiling fellow who's still definitely concerned about his subject's well-being. But it's Jackson who regularly gains viewer attention with a character who, while he might be a little punch-drunk, still remains bright, sharp and funny.
The first hour of the film is terrific at establishing characters and relationships. The second hour is, literally, a whole different story. It involves the L.A. Times Magazine piece being published to much praise. Then it introduces a new character, a boxing promoter named Ike (Peter Coyote, hidden behind glasses) who's so old-school he still uses a rotary phone -- and who uses it to call Erik and (yet again) to refer to Satterfield by saying, "I thought he was dead."
What we've got here is not just a new direction and a new mood. It actually feels like a whole different movie -- and an even more interesting one. It touches on the dark side of journalism and what happens when good intentions go astray. It gives Hartnett, Jackson and, in a smaller way, Alda, new grist for their characters. And everything is pulled together by a strange, oddly satisfying ending.