I heard: “Josh Hartnett befriends crazy old bum.” And I thought: “Oh no, the bum’s gonna turn out to be an angel who teaches him the real meaning of Christmas,” or some mushy claptrap like that. But I should have known better. I could see that Hartnett has been trying, in his recent films like The Black Dahlia and Lucky Number Slevin, to get past relying on his pretty face. I knew that director Rod Lurie has made a point of generally not falling back on the obvious and the melodramatic, even when the temptation may have been there (see his intriguing and underappreciated political drama The Contender and his lamentably short-lived TV series Commander in Chief). And it has been hard for anyone to escape, thanks to ubiqitous TV and Internet ads, the fact that Samuel L. Jackson, god among actors, plays the bum.
So: mea culpa, I was wrong in my expectations about this one. Way wrong. There’s not a lick of phony sentiment in Resurrecting the Champ, for one, even though it does kinda turn out that the bum teaches the other guy something about the true meaning of father-son relationships. And the guy gets a few other lessons, too, in things like professional ethics and personal integrity, from more than a few other folks around him. The whole flick is a general beat-down, actually, of a reality that many of us live with: a cool and contemporary detachment from ourselves, from the people around us in both the close personal way and in the concept of a larger society we owe something to, and from truth of the factual nature and of the harder-to-define philosophical kind. It’s not exactly the stuff that feel-good movies are made of — it’s the stuff that hey-chew-on-this movies are made of.
It’s like this: Hartnett is Denver Times sports reporter Erik Kernan, and he’s struggling in his work. His boss (Alan Alda: The Aviator, Mad City) is spectacularly unimpressed with his pedestrian writing, which may be a result of Erik’s languishing on a lousy beat covering small-time local boxing, or may be a result of Erik thinking he’s entitled to professional regard that he has not yet earned. And then, one night in a grungy Denver alley behind that local, small-time boxing arena, jackpot: Kernan rescues an old homeless man from a beating by macho cretins, and Champ, as the old homeless man calls himself, turns out to be the burned-out, alcoholic husk of a once-famous championship prizefighter, Battling Bob Satterfield. Or so he claims. But Kernan doesn’t hear the warning bells ringing that we do, he’s so desperate for a meaty story to make his name on.
Savvy film fans are to sure to get an early clue as to how majorly Erik’s misguided ambition will come back around to bite him in the ass, but that’s okay. This isn’t a story about keeping secrets from the audience — it’s based, in fact, on a true story written for the Los Angeles Times magazine by J.R. Moehringer, so you may already know the upshot of how Champ’s claim plays out. (I didn’t know the true story before I saw the movie, and though I thought I’d guessed early in the film, I was wrong, so I’m pretty confident in saying that whatever you’re guessing now may well be wrong, too.) Instead, here we have an examination of the role of journalism in modern media culture that goes beyond simple questioning of professional ethics to a deeper (but unresolved, and appropriately so) questioning of audience “ethics.” Does an audience get the story it wants rather than the tougher, more complicated reality… and can we sometimes lump a journalist in with that audience, too, when they lazily hear what they want to hear instead of doing the harder job of listening for the truth?
There aren’t any easy answers here, just hard questions. But there is unalloyed and effortless pleasure to be had in Jackson’s (1408, Home of the Brave) performance, which embodies a kind of integrity that goes beyond the merely obvious bestowing of un-take-away-able humanity on a man whom most of society would consider the very lowest of the low on society’s totem pole. Champ makes a point of correcting someone who calls him a “bum”: “I’m not a bum,” he says, “just homeless,” but everything about how Jackson approaches the character and his complex motivations goes on to question, in fact, whether Champ might not be something of a bum, in the more old-fashioned sense of the word, someone irresponsible and careless. In Jackson’s hands, Champ is neither a disposable member of the human family nor a wholly likeable one, either.
And there is great pleasure to be had, too, in seeing how Hartnett really comes into his own as an actor here. Much as how Kernan ferociously latches onto Champ, Hartnett grabs this conflicted character as an opportunity to stretch… though with a lot more self-awareness than Kernan has. From how Erik seems to swell with reckless overconfidence when he stumbles upon Champ’s secret to how he navigates the rocky shoals of the relationship with his six-year-old son (the sweet-faced Dakota Goyo) that he himself set up, Hartnett is genuinely emotionally accessible for the first time that I’ve ever seen him be on film. He makes this complicated man both more affable than he probably deserves to be and less iniquitous than he likely could have been. I’ve been a detractor of his in the past, but now I’ll be looking out for his next role, and hoping that he can continue to surprise me.