Whilst it's wall-to-wall preachy in its desire to be one of those inspirational redemption flicks, the seemingly cliched 'Champ' shines in small moments thanks to smart writing, glimpses of grim realism and a strong performance by an almost unrecognisable Samuel L. Jackson.
Of course this isn't the first time Jackson has played homeless, in fact short of some new facial makeup it looks like he simply walked in from his role on the set of the little seen but surprisingly solid 2001 murder thriller "The Caveman's Valentine". Yet 'Champ' is an altogether different vehicle for him here, one that allows the actor to literally disappear into a character for the first time since the superb "Changing Lanes" five years ago.
It's not an awards caliber role, his screen time being that of a supporting part despite being the titular character, but his moments on screen as the high-pitched, wheezing, homeless ex-boxer shine - especially in his scenes where we get to see the nobility and pride of the once champ come through. His numerous conversations with Josh Hartnett, the brooding hunk actor desperate to be taken seriously but lacking the chops to do so, are the film's best and strike with a nice warmth and sense of kinship.
Unfortunately much of the rest of the film falls short of those great character scenes and instead loses focus in its quest to cover a wide varietyof bases ranging from journalistic ethics and the fleetingness of celebrity, to father-son relationships and over-reaching ambition. Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett's script also makes the mistake of focusing the story on a cocky young reporter character who generates little sympathy. It's not unusual, one of the last year's best films was "The Last King of Scotland" made a similar error, but in that case the character was a believably green young single doctor and was played by the very talented James McAvoy.
'Champ' on the other hand has Josh Hartnett playing a divorced father with a lot more experience who, in his first overdue big break, somehow manages to make a glaringly obvious error that any first year journalism student wouldn't fall for. Hartnett's mixed performance notwithstanding, the actor nails some scenes perfectly but feels decidedly out of his depth on others, it takes a rather hypocritical kind of hubris for a film to preach ethics when it takes a straightforward real life tale and adds a highly dubious Hollywood twist to suit its own ends.
It's unfortunate considering that aside from this and a few other moments of bowing to implausible movie cliches (notably the ending), much of the rest of the film deals with its story and various themes in refreshingly frank and believable takes. At times - such as a monologue by Teri Hatcher in a brilliantly energetic cameo as a power suited cable TV producer - it's almost frighteningly cynical and blunt about the stark reality of things. These real moments of dark truth however make the trite sentimental moments that dominate the rest of the film seem disingenuous at best.
Strong understated supporting performances such as Alan Alda as a very credible newspaper editor, Kathryn Morris as Hartnett's experienced fellow journalist wife, and an almost unrecognisable Peter Coyote as an ex-boxing coach, lend a surprising gravitas to material that could come off as movie of the week in other hands. The hands in this case belong to Rod Lurie, the director of the very well done "The Contender" and the decent but short-lived "Commander-in-Chief" series. Whilst Lurie's work lacks a sense of energy or pace, he's a solid director who frames
his scenes well and this time thankfully populates his film with more morally dubious characters.
But the Lurie of old is still very much in there, and stands on his soapbox to preach his high horse morality where it can.
Ultimately 'Champ' is a modestly effective movie. The glimpses of a truly great work are often drowned out by all the piousness and simply overwritten attempts to cover a lot of ground. The moments where the film relaxes into a laid back character drama, or swings an unexpected jab at institutional sanctimony, it actually strikes nerves both emotional and intellectual. Those moments though are just too few and far between in a movie that otherwise follows all the trite and easy pathways that those effective moments rebel against. It should please those who like smart but easy to swallow entertainment and don't really want to examine their heroes in great scrutiny.