Champions is a crowd-pleaser based on the reaction I witnessed at the screening I attended. Whether you see it as the decline of discernment or a break from a slate of poor films is up to you. I found it tolerable but barely that.
G-League assistant basketball coach Marcus (Woody Harrelson) is depressed and miserable. This is compounded by his desire to go to the NBA itself, but a mix of roughing the Iowa Stallions coach Phil (Ernie Hudson) and a drunk driving crash with a police vehicle make any such idea hard. Given the choice between 18 months in jail or 90 days community service, Marcus still comes close to bungling things.
The community service is to coach The Friends, a small basketball team at a Des Moines community center. There is something of a hitch: the team is made up of people with special needs. He is dismayed by some of their behavior and at times refusal to follow instructions. However, the various members soon start affecting Marcus' worldview.
One of them, Johnny (Kevin Inanucci) has grown fond of Marcus. He, however, is unaware that Marcus had a one-night stand with Johnny's sister Alex (Kaitlin Olson). Alex, a cantankerous Shakespearean actress, is always ready for quips at Marcus' expense, with Johnny being the only person who gets a softer side of her acerbic personality. As the Friends start jelling and advancing, it is not long before they qualify for the Special Olympics in Winnipeg. Will Marcus find his way to the NBA? Will his romance with Alex move forward? Will the Friends take down the Beasts?
Perhaps the selling point in Champions is that it is centered around those with special needs, with them acting in the film. It is to the film's credit not used in a cheap ploy. Granted, some sections, such as Johnny's fear of water to where he refuses to shower and has to be tricked into it, might come across as using disability for laughs. However, Champions does allow some of the characters a chance to be more than props.
At the top of the list is Madison Tevlin as Cosentino, the brash, bossy and sassy sole female basketball player. She does more than stand up to Marcus. She tells him off and lets him know who is the boss. At a major point in the season, she orders Marcus and Sonny (Matt Cook), the assistant coach out of the locker room for a "players only" meeting. If Marcus does not stay out until allowed to come in, Cosentino says, she'll "Me Too" him. She then goes after Johnny, who has so far refused to play due to Alex and Marcus' sexual relationship. Again, in her almost belligerent manner, she lets Johnny know his sister is an adult and can do as she pleases.
It is unfortunate though that because Champions wants to give all of the players a bit of a backstory and their individual moment, they soon start blending into each other. The film begins to struggle in keeping everyone's specific story going. As such, the film veers between focusing on Johnny or Cosentino or Darius (Joshua Felder) and trying to bring back other characters. All these subplots come in, but the film tries too hard to focus on all the characters.
There's a subplot about Benny (James Day Keith), who unlike most of his teammates is able to live by himself and has a job at a restaurant. His boss repeatedly keeps him from going to games and even fires him when he asks for the time. This does provide a way for Marcus and Alex to essentially shake down the restauranteur (and a chance for Woody Harrelson to try and pass himself off as "Officer Sanchez"); however, it seems as if that could be a film onto itself.
Instead, this and other curious moments (such as another player saying he had been in a threesome) make the film feel longer than its two-hour running time. Mark Rizzo, adapting the Spanish film Campeones had a lot of balls in the air. Too many, really, for the film to hold.
Champions' length makes things unnecessarily hard for the film. It is a bit out of focus, with story elements that could have been trimmed or cut altogether. Why, for example, did Sonny seem so eager to be Marcus' BFF? We forgot about Sonny for long stretches of time, and only past the midpoint of Champions did he serve a purpose. If Alex's Shakespearean trailer was available to take the kids to an away game, why not ask her first rather than have a bus scene that ends in vomiting? Was the montage to Sweet Georgia Brown (better known as the Harlem Globetrotters' theme) necessary?
In terms of performances, Champions is serviceable. Harrelson's droll manner works for this angry man who slowly becomes better through his interactions with the Friends. He and Olson work well together as this version of Benedick and Beatrice, forever insulting each other while desperately trying to get a little action. The special needs actors did well, though again it soon became hard to remember who is whom and what story they had.
Champions hits all the familiar beats that you expect from the story: grumpy man finds redemption through learning about others, the players start poorly and end with greater success. There is nothing particularly original or special about Champions. However, it is serviceable and crowd-pleasing. The audience I saw it with loved it, and I can see why. It is harmless entertainment, not deep, whose predictability may be its greatest strength. I do not look down on films that do not pretend to be anything other than what it ends up being.
Champions is fine, but it is no winner.
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