A shameless tearjerker that some fans of a certain age still hold close to their hearts, The Champ is a remake of the 1931 picture of the same name, and the focus of both versions is the cheap sentiment of a child crying. Directed with gimme-the-paycheck proficiency by Italian artiste Franco Zeffirelli, the 1979 version is lavish inasmuch as Zeffirelli lets scenes run longer than might seem necessary, presumably because he’s trying to build up a head of emotional steam for the bummer ending. For believers who get lost in the story, the overkill approach is probably quite effective, but for the rest of us, it’s just overkill.
The tale begins on a Florida racetrack, where former boxer Billy Flynn (Jon Voight) works as a horse trainer and raises his angelic little boy, T.J. (Ricky Schroder). Billy’s an irresponsible drunk and gambler, ashamed that he’s not a role model for his son, and he talks a good line about returning to the ring someday so he can earn his nickname: Champ. Through convoluted circumstances, Billy and T.J. cross paths with Annie (Faye Dunaway), a fashion maven who just happens to be T.J.’s mom; she split when the boy was an infant. Annie, now remarried and wealthy, is enchanted by the boy and wants to become part of his life, but Billy won’t forgive her for her past infractions.
However, when Billy gets thrown in jail after a drunken brawl, he realizes T.J. needs a better home, so Billy pretends to send the kid away to live with Annie. (Cue weeping from Schroder.) After getting out of jail, Billy decides to get himself together and return to the ring. T.J. runs away from Annie to be with Billy during his training. (More weeping upon their reunion.) Finally, the day of the big fight comes, and—well, there’s no need to spoil the finale. (Except to say that there’s more weeping.)
Voight is pretty good here, trying to infuse Method credibility into a preposterous role, and he realizes his main purpose is triggering Shroder’s waterworks; nonetheless, Voight has strong moments depicting a simple man’s reluctant emotional declarations. Ice queen Dunaway is interesting casting, since we’re supposed to see Annie coming to life before our eyes, but her performance is far too reserved for this sort of thing. Several top-shelf character players (Elisha Cook Jr., Arthur Hill, Strother Martin, Allan Miller, Jack Warden) are underused in supporting roles. Schroder, who has subsequently enjoyed a long career on TV playing juvenile and grown-up roles, is like a Norman Rockwell dream of a perfect child in The Champ, clever and sensitive and smart, all bright eyes and rosy cheeks and tousled hair. He cries a lot and seems properly upset at the right moments. So, if watching youthful anguish is your thing, then The Champ is for you.
The Champ: FUNKY