MVD Marquee Collection: Resurrecting the Champ (2007) - Reviewed

J.R. Moehringer’s engrossing Los Angeles Times article Resurrecting the Champ, written in 1997, told the unlikely story of an elderly homeless man known locally as the “Champ” who claimed to be former heavyweight boxing champion Bob Satterfield.  As time went on, the news journalist grew skeptical of the man’s claims, culminating in an extended essay that proved to be as much about the topic of Satterfield as it was a work of self-examination on the part of Moehringer.  A fascinating tale that reads almost like narrative fiction, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood became interested in transforming Moehringer’s story into a feature film.

Under the direction of Rod Lurie (The Last Castle) and penned by screenwriters Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett with the writer’s name changed to Erik Kernan (Josh Hartnett) and Samuel L. Jackson inhabiting the role of the Champ, the big screen adaptation of Resurrecting the Champ is an engaging character driven drama which rests mostly on the chameleonic performance by Mr. Jackson.  From the outset this looks like a boxing movie, which it sort of is, but mostly it concerns the bond formed between Kernan and the Champ, the gulf between journalistic integrity and success, the bloodlessness of show business as well as the cumulative impact of fact versus fiction. 

Though the film embellishes some of the elements of the story for dramatic effect, including giving Kernan a young son when the real Moehringer had no children as well as changing the location from California to Colorado, Resurrecting the Champ is nonetheless a solid actor’s movie with ample room given to Harnett and Jackson who play excellently off each other.  The young and clean cut Hartnett gives a compelling performance as a sportswriter at the end of his rope looking for a way to save his employment with the Denver Times. 

Jackson, one of our generation’s finest actors, all but completely disappears into the role of the Champ, aided by an arsenal of aging makeup which gives the actor a grizzled, scruffy appearance.  Particular attention should be paid to the way Jackson speaks with the raspy, high-pitched voice of the Champ played almost exactly as described in Moehringer’s article.  Also aiding the proceedings are veteran actors Alan Alda, David Paymer and Peter Coyote, rounding out an ensemble cast of characters excited for Kernan’s new article while intensely scrutinizing the validity of it.  The film even saves room for a small offscreen cameo from Raging Bull Jake La Motta.

Visually Rod Lurie’s film is handsomely photographed in panoramic widescreen by Adam Kane (The Boondock Saints), providing a stark contrast between the sterile home setting of Kernan to the rugged back alleyways where the Champ resides.  The film also sports an affecting original score by Larry GroupĂ© which shifts freely between melancholic jazz and poignant piano cues.  While the film does have some staged boxing scenes, the story of Resurrecting the Champ is mostly told out in the open whenever Kernan can get a few more words out of the Champ for his article. 

Sadly the film, while well regarded with effusive praise placed upon Samuel L. Jackson’s acting, slipped under the radar.  Costing a hefty $13 million for what is ostensibly a character driven drama, the film barely broke even before slipping into mid-2000s obscurity.  Seen now, thanks to the efforts of the MVD Marquee Collection, Resurrecting the Champ is truly an interesting actor’s movie based on a still enthralling article that’s as much about finding out the truth surrounding the “Champ” as it is about the author’s own personal journey of self-discovery.

--Andrew Kotwicki