"Champ" delivers knockout hero tale
That elusive expectation that society seems to put on two groups more than any other — fathers and famous athletes.
And that’s where heart-wrenching and heart-warming film, "Resurrecting the Champ," begins.
A few years ago, director Rod Lurie read a 1997 article in the LA Times about former Chicago City Golden Gloves Champion Battling Bob Satterfield. The profile followed the former champ’s rise to boxing notoriety and his subsequent fall to the bottom as a homeless man on the streets of Los Angeles.
In the process of completing the profile, writer J.R. Moehringer comes face to face with his own personal issues, discovering as much about himself and his relationship with his distant father as he did about Satterfield’s fall from grace.
Lurie, a former journalist himself, immediately fell in love with the story and became committed to creating it for film. Ten years later, Lurie’s stories of heroes makes its debut at Sundance.
The story, which was written by Lurie, Allison Burnett and Michael Bortman, has a few differences, but the message about fathers and sons is the same. Lurie had originally wanted to shoot the film in Los Angeles, but with the low budget of an independent film, he moved production to Calgary, Canada. The pine trees in town just didn’t have that Southern California feel and palm trees were out of question budget-wise. So, he began to think about what city Calgary looked like the most that would also fit the screenplay. Denver another Rocky Mountain town that loved its sports and had a big city newspaper fit the bill.
Lurie was also lucky to capture the interest of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, with Samuel L. Jackson and Josh Hartnett among them, despite the independent status of the film.
"I think it’s in the screenplay. I like the characters and I like the script," Lurie said. And evidently, so did the Hollywood stars.
Hartnett plays Erik Kernan, a sports writer for the Denver Times. He is also the son of broadcasting legend Erik "The Wildman" Kernan, and struggles to live up to his father’s legacy as the low man on the sports desk totem pole covering the boxing beat.
Work isn’t the only place where Kernan is struggling to live up to expectations. He is in the process of a divorce and feels the distance growing between himself and his young son Teddy.
Right about the same time, he happens upon "The Champ," Battling Bob Satterfield, played by Jackson, who is also down on his luck as a former prize boxer now stuck on the streets of Denver. Kernan watches "The Champ," being beat up by a bunch of street thugs, but also notices his ability to take a punch. Kernan comes in and saves him from the thugs and realizes that he has just rescued a boxing legend. It’s the perfect chance to resurrect Satterfield’s legend and his career simultaneously, but in the process, his storytelling reignites a lot more than two reputations.
"For Josh playing a sportswriter with a family, it’s a chance to stop playing the boy-man and play the man-man," Lurie said. "It vacillates with journalistic ethics. It’s very complex."
He suspects that the attraction for Jackson was because of the sports theme.
"Sam is sports crazy," Lurie said. "He’s out of his mind for sports."
And seemingly, so is Lurie. The Connecticut native is a die-hard New England sports fan and admits that during his newspaper days he always thought that the sports reporter was the luckiest person in the newsroom.
"It’s the best job in the paper," Lurie said. "You are really defined by the athletes."
Lurie spent most of his time on the entertainment and investigative beats and would sometimes look longingly at the sports writers who were allowed to let personalities influence and affect their writing.
"I think it’s part of what the movie is about," Lurie said. "Sports writing is the only place where you can write objectively about sports, but write with poetry. You can’t help but editorialize."
It also allowed Lurie the opportunity to paint the sports movie theme in an entirely different way. Boxing, in addition, helps to set a unique tone.
Jackson spent months preparing for his role in the ring, sparring with the links of Lennox Lewis and others, becoming very adept at the intricate moves of the sport. Lurie, who boxed everyday as part of his regimen at West Point, says that boxing is a perfect sport to use as backdrop in the film, because it combines both art and science and gives the plot a certain level of focus.
"It’s absolutely essential," Lurie explains. "The great boxers had both."
Lurie says that it’s not the sports theme that makes the film. Nor is it the big names. Much in the way that "Field of Dreams" captured hearts nearly two decades ago, the appeal of "Resurrecting the Champ" lies in the story of a father and a son.
Kernan wrestles with his sputtering career while still trying to be larger-than-life to Teddy. When he follows Satterfield’s legacy, he begins a journey of finding truth and piece in that relationship.
The movie ends with the sentiment that the only thing more powerful than a son’s need to impress his father, is a father’s need to impress his son.
"We want to be heroes to our sons," Lurie said. "I think the lesson is he always will be."
From the outset, Lurie’s "Resurrecting the Champ" isn’t breaking any new ground or tackling any of the world’s toughest problems, but on the inside it is breaking hearts and attacking problem’s set deep in the soul.
"It’s the most relatable film I’ve done," said Lurie. "Father’s cry and want to do better."
"Resurrecting the Champ" screens this Wednesday, Jan. 24 at 6:30 p.m. at Peery’s Egyptian Theater in Ogden.
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