© 2007 Ray Wong
With its impressive cast and a sports-related story, I'm surprised by the lack of publicity and distribution for this film about truth, fame, integrity and love.
Erik (Josh Hartnett) is a sports reporter at the Denver Times. Separated from his wife Joyce (Kathryn Morris), also a journalist at the Times, he feels unappreciated by his boss, sports editor Metz (Alan Alda). One day, Erik encounters a homeless in alley who calls himself Champ (Samuel L. Jackson). At first Erik thinks Champ is just another crazy bum on the street, but soon he realizes that Champ might be his ticket to be taken seriously.
It turns out Champ's really Bob Satterfield, a heavy-weight boxing champion in the 50s. Many people think Champ is dead, here he is, speaking to Erik in person. Champ's story fascinates Erik, as well as the paper's magazine editor Whitley (David Paymer), who promises to make Champ their title story. Driven by ambition and grudge, Erik goes behind Metz's back and interviews Champ. When the story comes out, it is a sensation and Erik becomes an instant star. Erik feels vindicated while Metz feels betrayed by Erik's dishonesty. Soon, however, Erik discovers the truth behind Champ's story, and the revelation forces him to reexamine his life, his relationships, especially with his wife and son Teddy (Dakota Goyo), and his truth.
As Champ, Samuel L. Jackson (1408) plays against type in a role that calls for a gentle, withdrawn and sad performance. Jackson nails the role by disappearing in it, giving us a nuanced, understated but unique portrayal of a man beaten by life and false hopes. Jackson could have easily overplayed the role for dramatics. Instead, he has given one of his most heartfelt performances. Josh Hartnett (The Black Dahlia) proves that he can be a worthy leading man and proudly stand next to Mr. Jackson. Not just a pretty boy anymore, Hartnett has matured immensely and given one of his best performances as a man corrupted by his own ambitions and fear of failure. He carries the film (he is in almost every scene) and never falters.
Kathryn Morris (Paycheck) is fantastic as Erik's sympathetic wife. You can feel the tension between her and Hartnett, but also the love between them. Dakota Goyo (Ultra) impresses as their son, Teddy, with his cute but natural acting. Alan Alda (The Aviator) is such a good veteran actor, and he delivers as expected. Rachel Nichols (Shopgirl) is effective as Erik's coworker who helps him with his investigation, and Teri Hatcher (Desperate Housewives) has a good time playing a showbiz vixen. The rest of the cast is rock solid as well.
The screenplay by Michael Bortman (Chain Reaction) and Allison Burnett (Autumn in New York) has a good literary feel to it -- it is, after all, a story about a writer. There are plot points that stretch credibility (would a reporter really take a homeless man's story at face value without verifying it?) and border on schmaltz, but the writers deftly avoid the common pitfalls and give us a solid script with thought-provoking dialogue and universal themes. Who hasn't tried to do anything they can to impress others? Who hasn't let their own ambitions or fears cloud their judgement? The story examines common themes such as truth, fame, integrity, responsibilities, and being who we are. The writers also coat the soft center with a harder shell: the world of boxing and male competitiveness, giving the film a more masculine edge.
Director Rod Lurie (The Contender) infuses the film with a relaxed pace, unfolding the story close to the vest. Sure, we anticipate there's more to Champ's story, and we're aghast to see how careless and gullible Erik is, blinded by his desire for success. Lurie has an sophisticated style that doesn't feel forced or manipulative, even when the story pushes it. He also lets his actors do their job, and often the audiences are so in the moment that the scenes don't need any embellishment. In a way, the director disappears and lets Jackson and Hartnett captivate the audiences with their heartfelt portrayals.
The result is what I'd call a guy's chick flick, much like Field of Dreams. The theme of father-son relationship is potent throughout the film, and any man can relate to that. So take your husbands, boyfriends, fathers or sons to see this movie -- it's quite a champ.
Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Josh Hartnett, Kathryn Morris, Dakota Goyo, Alan Alda, Rachel Nichols, Teri Hatcher, Kristen Shaw, David Paymer, Harry J. Lennix, Peter Coyote
Director: Rod Lurie
Writers: Michael Bortman, Allison Burnett
Distributor: Yari Film Group
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence and brief language
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 7.4 out of 10