Champions makes no promises to provide the underdog sports movie formula a grand overhaul. It doesn’t fix what isn’t technically broken. Through winsome casting, strong characterization, and a consistent mix of chuckles and laughs, it does right by everyone involved, most notably its oft-marginalized group of intellectually challenged individuals.
Based on Javier Fesser’s 2018 film Campeones — the highest-grossing Spanish-speaking film released in Spain that year — the film starts by showing Marcus Marakovich (Woody Harrelson) as he is. He’s an arrogant NBA G League assistant coach, whose combative nature has cost him several coaching gigs in the past. He’s ousted from the Iowa Stallions when he pushes the team’s head coach (Ernie Hudson) in a spat over play-design in the final seconds of a game. A DUI accident sends him to three months community service. The job? Coaching a basketball team comprised of intellectually challenged people, who make up the “Friends.”
The team is fundamentally sloppy, but they love one another as individuals as well as a collective. The rec center at which they practice is run by Julio (a gentle Cheech Marin), who gives Marcus the role-call early in his arrival.
Johnny (Kevin Iannucci) has a heart of gold, but has a justifiable fear of water, so he never showers. Marlon (Casey Metcalfe) is a walking Wikipedia of random factoids. Benny (James Day Keith) hardly gets a chance to practice because his boss never lets him miss shifts at a local restaurant. Darius (Joshua Felder), the team’s best player, refuses to be coached by Marcus. He has his reasons. Nearly every member of the team enjoys at least an adequately developed plot-thread.
Then there’s Alex (Kaitlin Olson), Johnny’s older sister, with whom Marcus has a one-night stand in the opening scene of the movie. Naturally, she resurfaces in a bizarre coincidence, but the cliché at least provides Olson a chance at some humanity. When the basketball team gets removed from a charter bus, her Shakespeare Theater RV (yes, stay focused) comes in clutch and provides transportation going forward. Soon enough, the Friends start winning to the point they’re in-line for the Special Olympics championship in Winnipeg.
Harrelson embodies the coarse and disgruntled coach with ease. He’s likable even when he’s being a total prick, and Mark Rizzo’s screenplay gets the best out of his abilities in making a surly caricature watchable and even laudable over the course of a slightly long two hours. When Olson’s Alex turned up again after her brief opening scene, I was delighted. The Always Sunny in Philadelphia mainstay has a natural poise with brutal honesty and sarcastic commentary. She’s developed nicely as her scenes with Harrelson’s Marcus roll on, like a pick and roll. Speaking of pick and roll, Kevin Iannucci is a true pleasure on-and-off the court. His character grows confidence as the Ws pile up, and his chemistry with Olson is undeniable.
The underdog herself is Madison Tevlin’s Consentino, a second act addition and the only female player of the bunch. She spends a lot of time on the bench, but her forceful leadership, sass, and blunt commentary is utilized perfectly. She’s a real find of a young actress. Here’s hoping we see more of her.
Champions is the first film Bobby Farrelly of the Farrelly brothers has directed on his own. Him and Peter are probably the most mainstream filmmakers to have used disabled actors and disabilities in general in their films for a long, long time. They’ve volunteered with Best Buddies for decades, and strike the perfect balance in finding ways to make them compellingly human on the silver screen. When the biggest criticism I can afford a movie is its commitment to a winning formula, that’s a film I’m comfortable recommending, especially when it’s frequently as funny as Champions.
NOTE: Champions is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olson, Kevin Iannucci, Cheech Marin, Ernie Hudson, Tom Sinclair, Joshua Felder, Casey Metcalfe, Matt Cook, James Day Keith, Tom Sinclair, Madison Tevlin, Bradley Edens, Scott Van Pelt, and Jalen Rose. Directed by: Bobby Farrelly.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!