When Erik first comes upon the man they call "Champ" (Samuel L. Jackson), the homeless resident has just been violently attacked by a small gang of vicious delinquents trying to prove their manhood with an act of cowardice typical of the goons and bullies in this part of town. After suffering their blows, the victim lies nearly helpless on the grounds of his minimal stakeout in a downtown alley. Once more, Champ is down, but this is the life he's accepted and adapted to with stoic resolve.
Kernan tries to come to his aid but is rebuffed by the proud squatter who identifies himself as "Battling Bob Satterfield" (a real heavyweight boxer who went from being a Chicago Golden Gloves Champion to narrowly missing a shot at a title fight in the fifties). This is a biopic about two men: the boxer and the man who gave him a literary rematch with fame and attention.
But the proposed article isn't exactly greeted with cheers. The idea of Kernan working up a story on the homeless residue of the boxing world is rejected by his editor, Metz (icy Alan Alda), whose disappointment in his young reporter's writing abilities is headed toward a possible layoff (despite protests to the contrary). It's Kernan's career that's on the ropes. Besides, isn't Bob Satterfield dead?
On the personal side of Kernan's life, he's taking some jabs as well. He and wife Joyce (Katherine Morris), also a reporter on the paper (a more highly regarded one), are separated and he wants to spend more time with his four-year old son Teddy (Dakota Goyo) than the custody arrangements grant him. Extra time is up to Joyce and she doesn't make it easy. She does, however, recognize the dominant role daddy plays in their tyke's life and development and agrees to his visits more often than not.
Looking to defend himself from the professional disaster he's facing, Kernan has a meeting with Mr. Whitley (David Paymer), editor of the magazine section, and when the young writer pitches the human interest angle on the all-but-forgotten boxer, it rings Whitley's bell. Whitley can barely suppress his excitement. "How soon can you have it?" he asks breathlessly.
With a series of taped interviews and historical facts dug up by researcher Polly (Rachel Nichols), Kernan puts it together and turns it into a powerful cover story, bringing glory to all involved. Kernan suddenly knows what it feels like to receive the cheers of the crowd. The sports and publishing worlds are impressed. Talk of a Pulitzer Prize for journalism rings in his ears. He's this month's hot stuff and he's got to balance newfound fame with the disciplines of normal life. He appears on TV interviews, then gets a gig on Showtime as a boxing commentator. A virtual Cinderella story for the macho side.
Until, that is, a knockout punch flattens the balloon. A small piece of evidence shows up like a roundhouse from hell, and Kernan's own words come back to haunt him. "It's you that's out there and there's no place to hide", he once said in order to draw a comparison between boxing and writing.
All of this is based on Los Angeles reporter J.R. Moehringer's article, which Phoenix Pictures' Mike Medavoy read and bought in 1997, putting it into the laptops of screenwriters Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett to develop. It came down to Rod Lurie (The Contender) to direct, which he does with characteristic taste and balance. Cinematographer Adam Kane is there to bring gritty visual reality to the newsman's beat and darker tonality to the retired boxer's hard times.
Teri Hatcher's brief stint as a supercharged shaker in the TV world of sports is a bit of exaggerated reality to fit the stereotype, but the performance is splashy enough to juice up her career. Little Goyo's performance is nicely concentrated within the framework of a boy's concerns. Exaggerations of a tyke's awareness level and/or "cuteness quotient" are, thankfully, subdued.
Morris and Alda are tops in supporting roles but the one who knocked me out was Peter Coyote as a crusty, methodical preserver of boxing history. His characterization could have stolen the entire show had he been given a chance to do it.
Jackson is notable for his absorption into a character, both in style, look, and the tonal shift of his voice. Fully into bedraggled mode, everything about him is a study in degradation, leaving him a man with nothing but pride to fight for and, gradually, losing the bout. Hartnett (Black Hawk Down, The Black Dahlia) is manifestly suitable as the anguished writer, and he proves, again, that he's more than a pretty face.
But what does it add up to as a movie? It's like Satterfield, who was good enough to come close to a title fight but not good enough to earn one. This film is a contender that doesn't quite take a championship belt.
Bring me Rocky Balboa, stat!
Run time: 112 mins
In Theaters: Friday 24th August 2007
Box Office USA: $2.9M
Distributed by: Yari Film Group Releasing
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 59%
Fresh: 71 Rotten: 49
IMDB: 6.8 / 10
Director: Rod Lurie
Screenwriter: Michael Bortman, Allison Burnett