Resurrecting the Champ

Like a good boxer, “Resurrecting the Champ” bobs when you expect it to weave. It has the markings of an inspiring sports drama, but it’s also a journalism drama — “Rocky” meets “All the President’s Men,” perhaps. It explores multiple relationships, examines the mindsets of several characters, and — despite being a heartwarming tear-jerker — doesn’t resort to sucker punches to make us cry.

Erik (Josh Hartnett) is a sports reporter for the Denver Times, assigned to cover boxing but eager to move on to something bigger — the Broncos or the Nuggets, for example. His editor, Metz (Alan Alda), complains that Erik’s writing is lifeless and mechanical, perfectly serviceable in terms of getting the facts across, but lacking any real distinction. Erik is still trying to find his voice as a journalist.

While looking for his voice, he finds instead: a homeless man. The man (Samuel L. Jackson), old and grizzled and speaking in a high-pitched wheeze, is called Champ, a nickname from his previous life when he was a successful professional boxer. He says he’s Bob Satterfield. Satterfield? Everyone thought he died years ago. But no, here he is, living on the streets and slowly losing his mind.

Erik sees this as an opportunity to write something truly great, maybe even make it into the paper’s Sunday magazine. Champ cooperates with him, warms up to him, becomes his friend. He likes the idea of being a little famous again.

That’s the first half of the movie. The second half takes us in unexpected directions, no longer just an inspiring sports flick but now a dissection of journalism practices as we follow the aftermath of Erik’s article. What responsibility does a journalist have to his stories’ subjects? How much fact-checking is necessary when telling someone’s personal story?

Based on a true story by L.A. Times journalist J.R. Moehringer, the film has been adapted for the screen by Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett and directed by Rod Lurie, whose breakout film “The Contender” also dealt with matters of ethics, politics, and truth.

“Resurrecting the Champ” delves into relationships, too: Erik and Champ, Erik and his deceased father, Erik and his ex-wife (Kathryn Morris) who is also his co-worker, Erik and his young son. Each of these connections is explored deftly and without melodrama. The fact that a film so seemingly middle-of-the-road could, as it turns out, be so thoughtful and profound is encouraging.

Lurie captures the atmosphere of the newsroom far better than most directors of journalism films have done; the interactions between writers, editors, and sources feel authentic, and the office cubicles are appropriately shabby. The boxing portions (we see many flashbacks to Champ’s career) are well-done, too.

The film wastes some time in the early rounds, dancing around the topics instead of engaging them, but once it gets going, it’s a solid, honest film with some very touching performances. It’s upbeat and honest. Like Erik’s writing, it’s good without being great — but certainly good enough to watch.

B (1 hr., 53 min.; PG-13, some profanity, including one F-word, and boxing violence.)