Judging by the dismissive snickers at a press screening for Resurrecting the Champ, Josh Hartnett’s performance as a hack reporter at a Denver daily hits too close to home for some reviewers. I can name a surfeit of reasons — starting with the screenplay — to sucker-punch the Champ, but Harnett ain’t one of ‘em.
Sportswriter Erik Kernan Jr. (Hartnett) longs to escape the shadow of his revered broadcaster pop, but according to boss Metz (Alan Alda), it might be better if the apple weren’t so wide of the tree. The Ryan O’Neal of our epoch, Hartnett’s secret weapon is his ability to (or inability not to?) convey hunk banality — a certain averageness of intelligence and talent that’s as fitting here as it was in The Black Dahlia or The Virgin Suicides. Erik sounds dim when quoting Melville or defining the word irony (cf. Ethan Hawke, Reality Bites), and yet these awkwardly scripted moments play as if Hartnett has kept steadfastly in character.
In time for a crucial pitch meeting (arguably the film’s most genuine scene), Erik meets a homeless drunk who was once a star pugilist (a wheezy Samuel L. Jackson, reciting his cornpone lines against type). The resulting magazine profile wins some respect for Erik around the newsroom, and lands him a gig at muck-racking bastion Showtime. But when Jackson is revealed to be an imposter, the Champ deteriorates into a family-targeted Shattered Glass knockoff.
By the bathetic conclusion — Erik confesses his sins to his son and is, can you believe it, redeemed — director Rod Lurie (The Contender, The Last Castle) has reduced Erik’s ethical conflicts to a no-brainer Freud could have resolved in a single fifty-minute session.