Reel Opinions

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Resurrecting the Champ

Samuel L. Jackson has always been an actor who could completely disappear into the role he was playing to the point that you are forgetting you're watching a performance. In Resurrecting the Champ, he not only makes you forget, he makes you remember just what a true talent he really is. Jackson plays a street person who says that he is Bob Satterfield, a once-rising prize fighter who could have been the best, but a string of bad luck brought him to where he is now. Jackson does not play Satterfield as a crazy drunk, or as an overly mystical philosopher like some other actors would. There is an intelligence to his performance that makes it a wonder to watch, and receives my vote for one of the best performances of the year.

The movie that surrounds Jackson's performance is pretty good, too. It opens with those infamous words "inspired by a true story", and then goes on to give a "screen story" credit, which means that something similar to what we're about to see happened in real life, but the writers mainly chose to make everything up. It may not be based entirely on fact, but it's still a good story. A struggling sportswriter named Erik (Josh Hartnett) is tired of having his articles reduced to blurbs in the back of the paper. His boss (Alan Alda) tells him that his stories lack inspiration. Erik wants to move up in the world of sports journalism, but he feels he'll never get the chance as long as he's forced to cover local boxing fights. While walking away from the arena one night, he happens to notice some hooligans beating up an old street person, who turns out to be the Samuel L. Jackson character. Bob Satterfield is an open and talkative man, and is all too happy to share his story with Erik, which begins an unusual friendship between the two men. Obviously, Erik also considers this the discovery of his lifetime, and realizes that an article about Bob could shoot him to the top of the field. He doesn't know much about Satterfield, but Bob is all too happy to fill in the details.

That's as far as I will go, fear of revealing anymore. Resurrecting the Champ starts out as being a heart lifting story about two men from very different walks of life being brought together. There's a lot more to it than that, though. The main theme that keeps on popping up throughout the film is that of the relationship between fathers and sons. Erik has a 6-year-old boy named Teddy (Dakota Goyo) from a failed previous marriage, and the kid worships his dad, as most boys that age do. Bob has a son too, though they have not spoken to each other in years. Even Erik's father, who died recently of lung cancer, is a continuous presence in the story since his father used to be a famous sports journalist and radio announcer, and Erik is constantly living in his shadow. All of these themes come together in the end to make this much more than the inspirational sports story that we expect when we're walking in. It's still inspirational, but it's about so much more and so many different things. This is the kind of movie that makes you think you've figured it out, but then switches gears in a good way about halfway through. I was surprised by the development that pops up, and was even more surprised that the movie managed to handle this change in a mature way so that it did not seem awkward or far fetched.

That's what really impressed me about this film. The movie knows how to walk a fine line, and never becomes overly sentimental or sappy, although the desire to do so must have been enormous for the filmmakers. Director Rod Lurie (2000's political thriller The Contender) and screenwriters Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett tackle the story in such a way so that the emotional feelings that the film brings forth are earned, instead of forced or overly manipulated. The characters and their situations grow on us because the movie gives us time to get to know them. Bob Satterfield captures our attention from the moment he walks onto the screen, and he only becomes more interesting as the movie goes on. He is a proud, but very flawed, man who seems real, not just because of Jackson's performance, but because of the way his character is written. He does not seek pity from others because of his situation, nor does he not spread wisdom and offer advice to anyone who talks to him. He is a man living in the past, and who simply wants to share his story so that he won't be forgotten. The way Jackson plays him is fascinating, because there is an edge to him. He's seen a lot in his life, and has lived through a lot more, which is clear to see on his face and in the way he talks. In the other lead role, Josh Hartnett is passable, but pails in comparison to the performance right next to him in a lot of scenes. His Erik never quite captures our attention the way that Samuel L. Jackson does. He's good at least, and that's what counts.
I had never heard of Bob Satterfield before walking into this movie. It made me interested enough to look up some information on line about the real person, even though I do not follow the sport of boxing. That, I believe, is one of the true merits of a film such as this. If you can get your audience to look more into the real story when they get home after seeing your movie, you've done your job. Resurrecting the Champ does its job and does it very well. This is a surprising and heartfelt film that deserves to be seen, at least for Jackson's performance, which I hope will be remembered come Oscar time. This is a movie that takes what we would expect and then expands upon it into something even better.



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