WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
I first saw The Champ during its initial theatrical run, and my only surviving memory of the film is the final scene, in which little Ricky Schroder emotes and emotes and emotes. I remember being affected, even as a youngster, by the emotion spilling from the screen. That Ricky could act. Flash-forward 23 years. I've just finished rewatching The Champ, and my only surviving memory of this viewing is that, damn, that little Ricky Schroder could act. The film itself is a hopelessly syrupy, heartstrings-tugging piece of melodramatic hokum, but that Ricky...wow.
Ricky plays TJ Flynn, admiring son of Billy Flynn (a young and spry Jon Voight), a jackass drunk and gambler who happens to be a former boxing champ and a surprisingly good father. TJ is a helluva kid, smart and loving, caring and loyal, and head-over-heels in little-boy adoration of his father, the "champ." TJ and his dad spend their days at a horse track in Florida. They have good times, and they have bad times. But two events—the reappearance of TJ's mom and Billy's decision to return to the ring—start the story down a tear-stained trail that can only end in heartbreak and tragedy.
It all feels manufactured for the benefit of your tear ducts. It's almost as if, seeing the soul-laid-bare potential of their astonishing little actor, the director (Franco Zeffirelli) and screenwriter (Walter Newman) rewrote the screenplay to take full, weepy advantage of Schroder's abilities. Frankly, the kid is exceptional in this film, and for his performance alone, you might want to consider a rental. Jon Voight is also effective as Billy, a "bad guy" protagonist.
But what to make of this plot, which sends poor TJ through the emotional grinder, again and again? There are a few scenes that will make you screech, "Awww the poor little dude!" then dissolve into hitching fits of sobbing. But then you'll stop and almost catch a glimpse of the filmmakers' self-satisfied smirks.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Warner presents The Champ in a surprisingly effective anamorphic-widescreen presentation of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. Considering this film's age, this is a fine transfer. The print is clean, the colors seem accurate, and detail reaches into backgrounds. I noticed no edge-enhancement halos. As per usual for this era of film, the film has a generally soft look.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc offers only an unimpressive Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track. Dialogue is adequate, but fidelity has eroded over 23 years, producing a harsh, tinny sound that tends to break apart at the high end. Stereo imaging is mediocre at best.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The primary extra is a Feature-Length Audio Commentary with Jon Voight and Rick Schroder. They seem comfortable and at ease at the microphone, but neither has much to say as the film plays. It feels as if neither has watched the film since its premiere. I was hoping for more insight.
The Behind-the-Scenes Documentary: On Location With The Champ is a huge disappointment at only 6 minutes. It's only a 1979 marketing promo for the film.
You also get cast and crew bios, an awards section, and the theatrical trailer. The case advertises the trailer for the original 1931 film, but it's nowhere to be found.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Rent it for the very strong performance by Schroder. If you can't stand that weepy little tow-headed toddler, steer very clear of this one.