Resurrecting the Champ Strikes Denver With a Low Blow

Resurrecting the Champ, a Josh Hartnett-Samuel L. Jackson film set in Denver, opened on August 24, and local reviewers gave the movie the hometown discount: Robert Denerstein, writing his first critique for the Rocky Mountain News since accepting a buyout from the tabloid, pinned the piece with a B- (a decent grade for him). Likewise, the usually reliable Denver Post analyst Lisa Kennedy lauded it in a far-too-generous three star review even though the movie punches like a 98-pound weakling. It quickly heads for the ropes and finishes on the canvas.

That won't stop plenty of Denverites from attending out of Colorado pride. But those who do will likely be feeling plenty of shame by the time the overhead lights reilluminate due to the lame way Champ uses its Mile High setting -- and anyone with more than a glancing knowledge of journalism is apt to hoot at the way the profession is represented.

The flick shares its title with a 1997 Los Angeles Times Magazine article by J.R. Moehringer, the best-selling author of the memoir The Tender Bar, and the filmmakers clearly see him as one of their primary assets; he's namechecked in the opening graphic. Not that they're faithful to the material. Moehringer, who wrote for the Rocky (and even freelanced a feature to Westword) before heading to the Times, pointed out in a Q&A with Denerstein that the picture is "someone else's story, inspired by mine. 'Loosely based,' as they say - but real, real loose. Like Star Jones' old dresses." Upon sitting through the misbegotten results, however, these comments still feel like an understatement. For one thing, the tale of Tommy Harrison, a homeless puncher who pretended to be a better-known pugilist known as Battling Bob Satterfield, took place in California, not Colorado; indeed, the word "Denver" doesn't even appear in the original offering. But that's far from the only time the narrative strays from reality. Aside from the concept of a homeless boxer pretending to be Satterfield, the most significant plot developments are fictionalized -- and not for the better. Champ seems patently phony from the first frame.

The action revolves around lead character Erik Kernan, who’s portrayed by Hartnett, a tedious blank of an actor who remains incapable of believably embodying any member of the human race, let alone a complex or multi-faceted one. Kernan is allegedly a sports reporter for the fictional Denver Times, and along the way, both the Rocky and the Denver Post are mentioned – meaning that viewers are asked to believe that Denver is actually sustaining three daily newspapers. (Yeah, and you can still find big lumps of gold by panning in the Colorado.) He wants to move beyond reporting on minor sports such as boxing and cover the Broncos and the Nuggets, but his editor, played by Alan Alda, thinks his writing is colorless – a credible conclusion if ever there was one.

Nevertheless, Kernan is desperate to prove his mettle, and thinks he can do so by writing for the Denver Times magazine, which is included in the Sunday edition. So he quietly floats ideas to the magazine's editor (David Paymer) – among them a look at John Elway’s post-football career and the difficulties of pitching at Coors Field. Of course, anyone who’d spent more than ten minutes in Denver would recognize such topics as laughably staid – which makes Kernin seem like an enormous dunderhead. Nonetheless, Paymer’s character perks up when the scribe mentions a potential profile of the man claiming to be Satterfield, who lives near the Denver Coliseum, especially after being told that Kernan’s editor has shown no interest in it. He gives Kernan the go-ahead, and after getting a progress report, he and the magazine’s publisher slot it for the cover of the magazine to replace a feature on (ha!) Gary Hart that’s fallen through.

And now, a brief pause to consider the ridiculousness of these sequences. Sunday magazines haven’t been included in Denver dailies for years – and that’s true of most other major metro rags. And while magazines put out by some larger papers, such as the New York Times, are quite prestigious, and often employ independent staffs, those in Denver-size markets frequently used writers from elsewhere at the paper. Also, the editor of such a magazine would never have given an assignment to a regular sports reporter without checking first with his editor – and he would have committed suicide before allowing a publisher to be involved in dictating a cover story.

The nonsense ramps up from there. Battling Bob – Jackson's turn is sadly one-dimensional – has no proof that he is who he says he is, and Kernan can’t line up anything solid, either. Somehow, though, the Times publishes the story on little more than faith – and, unsurprisingly, something goes wrong. Before it does, however, Kernan’s article causes a stir nationally, and within what appears to be hours, he’s offered an on-camera job at Showtime by a cartoonishly voluptuous executive who looks astonishingly like the cartoonishly voluptuous Teri Hatcher, of Desperate Housewives fame. In no time at all, he’s appearing as a post-fight interviewer following a cable-casted bout in Las Vegas.

This is the way the world works in bad Hollywood films – and nowhere else.

Running down all the stupidity would merely be redundant. But suffice it to say that the cameo appearance by John Elway is teeth-grindingly embarrassing, as is the rationale for the scene: Supposedly Kernan’s son, who appears to be about six, thinks Elway might come out of a retirement that began before he was born if he asks nicely. And while the filmmakers try to seem current by running video clips of newscasts featuring Channel 4’s Jim Benemann talking about the prospect of the Democratic National Convention coming here, a concluding montage intended to demonstrate that Kernan's career is flourishing does so via a shot of him interviewing none other than (oops!) Jake Plummer.

Clearly, Resurrecting the Champ doesn't know how to pick a winner. -- Michael Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts