(CNN) -- In an era when information is cheap, what price do you place on the truth? That's one of the quandaries sports reporter Erik Kernan (Josh Hartnett) faces over the course of "Resurrecting the Champ," a solid, surprisingly absorbing character drama based on an article by J.R. Moehringer (the best-seller "The Tender Bar").
Josh Hartnett and Samuel L. Jackson as a writer and his subject in "Resurrecting the Champ."
He'd be the last one to admit it, but Kernan is a journeyman writer. He's efficient and fast, but there's no personality in his prose. "I forget your pieces while I'm reading them," complains his editor (Alan Alda).
He's not doing so great outside the workplace either. He dotes on his little boy, but his wife, Joyce (Kathryn Morris) has thrown him out of the house. He's not even sure why, though anyone who protests he's been "cleaved" from his family is obviously suspect.
Stolid and a bit square, with his football-star physique and jutting, Dick Tracy profile, Josh Hartnett seems built to play heroes. But he's actually more interesting here, exploring how Kernan's sense of entitlement spars with his insecurities, and the opportunistic streak that takes over when he realizes that a homeless ex-prizefighter, "Champ" (Samuel L. Jackson), could be his ticket to the big time.
Going behind his editor's back, he befriends the old man, and pitches a profile to a weekly: how "Battling Bob" Satterfield went from Madison Square Garden to Denver's skid row.
"Resurrecting the Champ" seems to promise a triumphant comeback for Satterfield, not in the ring, but at least in the public eye. And we presume Erik might finally live up to the unreasonable expectations set by his father, a famous radio sportscaster back in the day. Watch the stars discuss the movie »
But that's not quite how things play out. It would be a pity to give too much away, but let's just say the Champ still throws a mean sucker punch. It's enough to rock the movie on its heels. You can feel the pleasantly dizzy sensation even on the back row.
Connoisseurs of Jackson's famously chameleon coiffures will appreciate his lank, graying braids, hanging limply over a pallid complexion. He doesn't walk, he rolls -- a boxer's skip brought down to a bum's hunched shuffle. This is a meticulous performance animated by a hoarse, high-pitched wheeze that gives his lines a mischievously ambiguous lilt.
"Oh, I have experience of irony," he assures the desperately earnest, unconsciously patronizing young white man -- who is about to learn the meaning of that word at first hand.
Directed by Rod Lurie, a former entertainment journalist and critic, "Resurrecting the Champ" is authentic in its newsroom scenes, and appropriately concerned at how entertainment value trumps diligent reporting (Teri Hatcher is vividly vampiric as a Showtime executive). Even so, for a generation accustomed to such easy-access research tools as Facebook and Wikipedia, the extent of the sloppy journalism on show here may beggar belief. (It's set in the dark and distant days of 1997.) There's also one outrageous "clue" which is perilously close to a cheat when you think about it.
But this isn't so much a film about journalistic ethics -- and certainly not a sports movie -- as it is a film about fathers and sons; a male weepie, in fact. Erik and Champ aren't just underdogs, they're also mediocrities. In their different ways, both of them are still carrying scars from their own childhood -- and inadvertently inflicting new wounds on the next generation.
Erik's little white lies about all his celebrity sports friends seem harmless, but they're also indicative of how painfully he needs to be a hero to his kid. Most dads are going to relate to that on some level.
Maybe the moral of the story is this: don't beat yourself up over it, and don't sell yourself short either. Where kids are concerned, you get a home win just by showing up.