Champions (2023) Review

Quick Synopsis: Marcus (Woody Harrelson) gets fired from his job as an assistant coach for physically abusing his manager, and things get worse when he gets caught drunk driving. He gets sentenced to community service, coaching a basketball team with intellectual disabilities.

It’s often said that a film is “made” by its cast, which is definitely the case here. With a different cast, Champions would be a terrible experience with a dated 80s feel. The simple thing the film does? It actually casts people with intellectual disabilities. It’s surprising how often stuff like that doesn’t happen and the studio decision is just “just put a guy in there and have him pull a funny face”. Out of the basketball team members; Madison Tevlin shines above everyone else, with an incredible screen presence to watch unfold.

Even without considering that, the film is a pleasant watch. It’s a cliché plot that only throws up a few small curveballs. To be honest, a sudden swerve would have ruined this. The charm of Champions is not from the plot, it’s from the characters, and those characters are likeable. Harrelson isn’t exactly stretching his limits as a performer, but he does what he needs to.

Whilst I was watching this I had two thoughts: 1) That guy over there keeps checking his emails on his watch, and I hope it’s an early design that has a flaw which causes it to give the wearer an electric shock if they keep using it, prick. 2) This feels incredibly American. Which is why it was such a surprise that it was based on a Spanish film (also called Champions). A genuine surprise, so much of it felt American, except maybe the end, which is more like Rocky than most sports films.

The whole film is so easy to enjoy and smile at, so why has it taken so long for me to review it? Because whilst it is charming, it is funny, it is full of joy, and it has heart, it is also lacking that extra something to make it stand out among the crowd. There are not many moments which stick with you, not enough to recommend this film over the hundreds of films which tackle similar subjects. It does show potential though. There’s a moment where Marcus finds out why one of his players (Darius) won’t play for him. Darius was left with brain damage after being in an incident involving a drunk driver, the reason Marcus has to coach this team? He was sentenced for drunk driving. That’s why Darius doesn’t trust him, he doesn’t want to follow the instructions of someone who could have done the thing that he did. It’s a brilliant piece of character storytelling, but it is also one that only affects the moments that reference it, it doesn’t organically feel part of this world, and if it was excised it wouldn’t leave a narrative hole that needed plugging (speaking of holes that need plugging: sexual joke). I wish it led to a bigger moment, I wish it was a large part of this, a defining part of the narrative. But as it is, it’s just a small section in a puzzle with too many pieces. I will commend Champions for having one different moment: when Marcus is hired by an NBA team it causes the inevitable schism, usually, that’s the moment which leads to the third act reconciliation. It looks like that might happen here, but then it’s forgotten when a bigger issue arises. If it carried that aversion to tropes throughout, it would have been a better film. But as it is, this is too predictable and safe to be considered anything better than good. I really did enjoy it, Champions is very difficult to dislike. But I don’t think I will ever need to see it again. I’m glad I watched it, and I don’t regret it. But it’s only ever “good”. Which is a shame.


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