Champions may take its shot, but this new Woody Harrelson movie ultimately just doesn't hit the mark.
There is an undeniable universal appeal to the simplicity of a good sports movie. For decades, fans have loved to see the underdogs triumph in the face of adversity and the coming together of people who learn valuable lessons both on and off the court. However, when a sports film fumbles, everyone notices. And sometimes, not even a seasoned star like Woody Harrelson can mask that fact.
Bobby Farrelly’s new movie, Champions, tells the story of a disgraced minor league basketball coach Marcus (Harrelson), who finds himself entangled with the law when he drinks and drives the night away after being fired from the G-League. In order to avoid hard time, Marcus takes a shot at community service – becoming the coach for a team that is heading to the Special Olympics.
During the drama movie, we see Marcus overcome his prejudices and rage issues as he learns the value of teamwork and connecting with people beyond basketball. However, once you push past all the sentimentality, Champions struggles to stand out from the typical sports movie tropes and feels, dare I say, hollow in its representation.
While Champions is an English remake of the 2018 award-winning Spanish film of the same name, its writing is by the numbers. Penned by Mark Rizzo (known for his work on the animated series Gravity Falls), dialogue is weighted with expositional passages of the characters describing their feelings and situations to one another.
Marcus often self-exposits on how others view his team of special needs players and how desperately he wants to make it to the NBA. The constant verbal reminders, at times, feel almost condescending to both viewers and the flick’s other characters. And along with Marcus’s verbal tendencies, Champions’ character writing affects the film’s overall pacing too.
In any good sports movie, we should, at some point, feel a rush of adrenaline and the tense build-up towards the final game – or in Champions’ case – the make-or-break match of the Special Olympics. Instead, in this 2023 movie, we are greeted with a focus on a coach’s internal journey, where the players with disabilities work more as backup dancers than sharing the limelight.
In the few action scenes, an indie motivational pop track plays in the background and are often pinned with punch lines and jokes – most of which relate to the players themselves. Farrelly’s reputation regarding films that find laughs through uncomfortable depictions of people precedes him– having worked as a producer on ‘comedy movies‘ such as Shallow Hal and Dumb and Dumber.
And, while Champions isn’t offensive, the framing of jokes in the family movie is somewhat misguided, as viewers are greeted with scenes of players too scared to shower and moments played off as jokes with characters who Marcus constantly has to guide. Overall, Champions seems like a movie packed with good intentions and motivations – however, its execution leaves little to be desired.
But, in this sea of issues, there is a shining light in this film. While the script is restrictive, Marcus’ basketball team actors steal the show. The team is genuinely likeable and has amazing chemistry with one another, and even from behind a screen you can see the cast’s real joy on set. While Harrelson seems stiff in his portrayal, Kevin Iannucci as Johnny and James Day Keith as Benny captivate attention with their charisma and delivery.
Champions is a film that is rough around the edges and feels as if it needs a few more drafts in order to meet its full potential. And while the actors gave it their best shot, unfortunately, the film just couldn’t score before the end buzzer and credits began to roll.