Release Date – 10th March 2023, Cert – 12, Run-time – 2 hours 4 minutes, Director – Bobby Farrelly
A minor league basketball coach (Woody Harrelson) finds his career halted after an act of aggression leads to him receiving 90 days of community service coaching a team with intellectual disabilities.
There’s a decent enough film within Champions. The kind of conventional ‘feel-good’ sports flick that comes around every now and then and proves to be a likable enough crowdpleaser. Mark Rizzo’s screenplay, and the story arc, certainly seems to say this. It should be fine, however there’s something about the film that often feels off for most of its run-time.
We follow Woody Harrelson as Marcus Marakovich, an assistant coach for a minor-league basketball team. He’s hoping to make it to the big time of the NBA, however those dreams are halted when he pushes head coach Phil (Ernie Hudson) and is booed of the court during a game. Things begin to spiral for Marcus quickly resulting in him receiving 90 days of community service, coaching a local team with intellectual disability – cue multiple gags about what the correct term for the group is, even if characters clearly know that certain “boo-boo words” aren’t at all suitable.
Thus Marcus finds himself having to train the Friends to at least become a working team. However, as he begins to develop a relationship with those on the team – particularly “homie with an extra chromey” Johnny’s (Kevin Iannucci) sister Alex (Kaitlin Olson) – and training starts to pay off Marcus’ career starts to show more signs of restarting. This especially being the case as the Friends find themselves on the road to the Special Olympics. Yet, before that, of course, we need to see them not always able to get the ball through the hoop. As Marcus’ initially finds himself reluctantly serving out his court ordered unpaid work the film feels somewhat oddly framed. It feels as if the disabilities of the central team are almost framed to push certain gags – even when they’re not mentioned or a part of the moment, which is a lot of the time.
It means that instead of a pull factor the film, and the gags in general, seem to push the viewer away due to this strange angle. Maybe it’s from how Marcus sees those in front of him, yet this feeling is still present later in the film, only really dropping for the big finale. It leads to a number of instances which feel rather manipulative, not for those in the film, but for the audience. Uncertainty begins to form as to how you’re supposed to feel about certain moments due to the framing of certain moments leaning away from what it feels like the script intends (although, even that does seem a little bit lax on some occasions).
If it wasn’t for the way in which the direction of the film seems to come across – whether unintentional or not – there would perhaps be a good, if conventional, film from Champions. There’s certainly one within the screenplay, you can even see it at some points during the film. It’s likely to come out more for some audience members, and there’s sure to be something of a crowdpleaser here even if it’s not the entire crowd. The laughs don’t overly come across, perhaps largely down to the angle a number of the core characters seem to be shown from, and in general you sit through Champions thinking two things; that it feels as if there should be a more likable film here, and that (despite being set in Iowa) this is one of the most Canadian-looking films ever made (it was shot in Winnipeg).
The base of Champions is a fairly conventional sports movie, the elements are certainly present however they, alongside the laughs, never quite come through as it feels as if the film often uses the disabilities of the central team to push jokes and ideas even when not relevant, leading to uncertainty of intention during some scenes