Critic-turned-writer/director Rod Lurie produces old-fashioned potboilers, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. His unabashed melodramas can be refreshing in an era when very little of what we see onscreen takes on big issues or provocative positions. But this time, working from a screenplay written by others, based on an article written by someone else and “inspired by” true events, he goes off course and ends up undermining his premise and leaving the audience feeling cheated.
Erik (Josh Hartnett), a reporter based on Pulitzer prize-winner J.R. Moehringer, starts to explain the meaning of the term “irony” to homeless “Champ” (Samuel L. Jackson). Erik thinks it was ironic that his father, a famous radio sportscaster, developed throat cancer, the disease attacking him in the very place that was the basis for his career. “I know what irony is,” the Champ says with some asperity. They are speaking of the colloquial definition of irony — a pungent contrast, not the rhetorical definition relating to the disconnect between what the speaker knows and what the audience knows. By either definition, there is a good deal of irony in this movie about honor and integrity and reputation that itself plays fast and loose with the underlying story.
In the movie version, Erik meets Champ when he is feeling stalled in his life. His wife, a brilliantly accomplished and beautiful journalist at the same paper, has left him. He is devastated at the thought that he will be as absent in his six-year-old son’s life as his father was in his. His editor, Metz (Alan Alda) says he writes like a machine. All the facts are there, but there is nothing memorable, no personality or turn of phrase. So Metz keeps him covering boxing when he longs for the glamour beats of football and basketball.
Champ tells Erik he is Bob Satterfield, a former boxer. A homeless man who was once a contender for the heavyweight championship is a story. Erik believes Champ is his “title shot.” It is his chance to move up to the newspaper’s magazine section. He puts his digital recorder down on the table, orders up some beers, and listens to Champ talk about his fights with the greats — LaMotta (the Raging Bull), Rocky Marciano, and Ezzard Charles.
Erik publishes the article and it is a huge success. He gets a chance to go on Showtime. His son is proud of him. And then it turns out that both Erik and the Champ have to learn some lessons about trust and truth.
And so does Lurie. The reporter’s name is changed in the story, but Satterfield was a real boxer and Moehringer did write about his descent into poverty. Young journalists are told on their very first day, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” What is the point of making a story about a journalist’s judgment and integrity if you are going to pervert the facts?
Parents should know that this movie has some strong language, drinking, smoking, and mild sexual references. There are tense emotional confrontations, some street fighting and some powerful punches in the footage of boxing matches.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Lurie’s political dramas Deterrence and The Contender. They will also appreciate Jackson’s performance as a different kind of homeless man in The Caveman’s Valentine.