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‘Resurrecting the Champ’ packs no punch

Male weepie feels generic and hammy with phoned-in performances. By John Hartl

“Resurrecting the Champ” is not a sequel to “The Champ,” the male weepie that won a 1931 Oscar for Wallace Beery and launched Ricky Schroder’s career when it was remade in 1979.

But the script, inspired by an L.A. Times magazine story, has much in common with its hammy predecessors. It too is about a washed-up boxer and the makeshift family that’s created when “the champ” is rescued from oblivion. And once more an adorable small boy is required to jerk tears without shame.

Samuel L. Jackson has the title role: a former champion fighter, “Battling Bob Satterfield,” who appears to be rediscovered by a desperate sports writer, Erik Kernan (Josh Hartnett), on the streets of Denver. Homeless and vulnerable to thugs who challenge him, the once-famous fighter becomes Kernan’s ticket to journalistic success.

Both men had unfortunate relationships with their fathers, and Kernan is trying to make up for it by becoming buddies with his six-year-old son, Teddy (Dakota Goyo). But he’s separated from his wife Joyce (Kathryn Morris), a co-worker who keeps her distance. Custody becomes a problem.

So does “the champ’s" true identity, which causes a lot of third-act awkwardness as well as several overblown discussions of journalistic ethics and the dire future of newspaper reporting. What started out as a sports movie is transformed into a strained treatise on trust and truth-telling.

Hartnett brings a portentous tone to the opening narration, which rests on several dubious generalizations about the nature of reporting. Weak and shallow, Kernan may be intended as an unreliable narrator; if so, Hartnett doesn’t connect with the idea. He’s frustratingly bland.

Jackson, who gives a surprisingly busy and undisciplined performance, fails to make the boxer’s memories vivid enough to seduce Kernan into believing them. Morris never makes it clear why Joyce dumped Kernan, while Goyo is exploited for maximum tear-duct manipulation. Peter Coyote is unrecognizable in a small role. Perhaps that’s a good thing.

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Only Alan Alda, as a ruthless newspaperman who tells Kernan that he forgets his mediocre stories while he’s reading them, seems grounded and genuine. In the newsroom scenes, he’s refreshingly vicious; he’s even more chilling in a barroom episode in which he confronts Kernan with the embarrassing consequences of his sloppy fact-checking. 

The director, Rod Lurie, started out as a movie critic but became an effective political filmmaker, guiding Joan Allen and Jeff Bridges to Oscar nominations for “The Contender” and helping Geena Davis to earn a Golden Globe for her role as a female U.S. President in the television series, “Commander-in-Chief.”

Back on the big screen, he frames his shots well enough (the veteran cinematographer is Adam Kane) and establishes a welcome narrative momentum, but he can’t overcome the defects in the screenplay, attributed to Allison Burnett (who wrote the insufferable “Autumn in New York”) and Michael Bortman (“Crooked Hearts”). Larry Groupé’s grating score also lands in the minus column.

Most successful movies start with a script that quickly establishes a point of view. “Resurrecting the Champ,” alas, never quite decides where it wants to take us.