Based on the 2018 Spanish film of the same name, the American version of Champions is less powerful because it doesn’t take its cues from the real-life team that inspired the original film. Still, Champions manages to have just enough feel-good moments and good character dynamics to be enjoyable. Directed by Bobby Farrelly from a screenplay by Mark Rizzo, the film gets off to a slow start but picks up steam at the halfway point, landing at a sweet and heartwarming end. Champions is fairly predictable, and though there’s little tension, the cast is charming together, and the story has a lot of heart and warmth.
Marcus (Woody Harrelson) is a G-league assistant basketball coach with dreams to work with the NBA, but whose bad temper and past actions have tarnished his reputation. After a drunk-driving accident lands him in legal trouble, Marcus is given court-ordered community service coaching a basketball team with intellectual disabilities. Marcus doesn’t take it seriously at first, but he finds himself warming to the idea as he gets to know the individuals on the basketball team, lovingly called “The Friends,” as he trains them to compete in the Special Olympics.
Champions has a simple premise, and it works because it knows precisely what kind of film it is trying to be. It’s a feel-good sports movie about coming together. The NBA might be Marcus’ dream, but Champions is a reminder of the good one can do in one’s own community. It’s important work and the bonds that are created in this particular space are unique and heartwarming. Marcus working with The Friends provides the kind of fulfillment he would have never had in the NBA, despite being high-profile. Sometimes smaller is better, and Champions understands that, and Rizzo’s script is imbued with plenty of heart in response.
The film is elevated by the ensemble cast. Harrelson’s sour, disgruntled disposition as Marcus is juxtaposed nicely with The Friends’ more upbeat and optimistic outlook on life. Of The Friends, Kevin Iannucci as Johnny and Madison Tevlin as Consentino, who is a force to be reckoned with, are standouts. Champions shines brighter because of their presence alongside the rest of the team. Marcus might learn a thing or two from The Friends, but their individual stories aren’t entirely neglected in favor of centering Marcus, who wouldn’t be anything without them really.
Champions does take a while to get going, and at a little over two hours long, it could have been edited down a bit to tighten the script. Setting up Marcus’ story at the start could have been swapped to give more screen time to The Friends and their backstories. This would have added more depth to the rest of the characters, helping to flesh them and the various dynamics they have with each other out some more. That said, the slow start doesn’t entirely derail Champions. Once it gets moving, it maintains its momentum and allows its exuberant energy to carry it through to the end. The humor doesn’t always land, but there is enough charisma despite the occasionally flat comedic timing.
The cast’s chemistry uplifts this film and makes certain moments all the more enjoyable. Everyone is clearly having a great time, and it shows in every scene. While the film probably won’t be remembered after audiences leave the theater, Champions is a lighthearted, feel-good sports movie that does exactly what it sets out to accomplish. It doesn’t do anything out of the norm, but it is a solid effort from Farrelly and Rizzo that will certainly boost one’s mood after watching.
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Champions releases in nationwide theaters on March 10. The film is 123 minutes long and rated PG-13 for strong language and crude/sexual reference.