Woody Harrelson has a history with basketball films, but Champions is very different from White Men Can’t Jump. This time around, Harrelson takes on the role of coach instead of player and Wesley Snipes is not involved (unfortunately). Harrelson and his team are your classic underdogs, which makes for a real crowd pleaser. It’s a nice change of pace from all the big blockbusters out in theaters right now and it’s a film that everyone should see.
Harrelson plays Marcus Marokovich, a skilled assistant coach for a minor league basketball team in Iowa. After an altercation with his head coach Phil (played by Ernie Hudson), Marcus is fired from the team, gets drunk at a bar, and drunk drives resulting in rear ending a police car. At his court hearing, the judge gives Marcus a choice: 18 months in prison or 90 days community service as the coach for a local community center’s basketball team for intellectually challenged players.
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The biggest critique I can give this film is that it feels like a late ’90s/early 2000’s sports movie, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It provides a nice mix of comedy with dramatic moments, mainly from Marcus’s relationship with Alex (played by Kaitlin Olson), a Tinder hookup who turns out to be the older sister of one of the Friends players, Johnny (played by Kevin Iannucci). It’s your classic will they/won’t they relationship and while predictable, Harrelson and Olson have terrific chemistry with each other and with Iannucci as well.
The Friends players are the true stars of the movie, and each one of them gets their moment to shine throughout. Iannucci is the most involved in the story and gives a great performance. The other true standout among the Friends is Madison Tevlin, who plays Consentino. As the only girl on the team, she keeps them in line and is as much of a coach as Marcus, if not more at times. I truly appreciated the representation for the intellectually challenged in a sports film and not have it feel like a joke.
The rest of the supporting cast of adults is great as well. Ernie Hudson has great back and forth with Harrelson and his character ends up playing an interesting role in the Friends season. Cheech Marin plays Julio, the manager of the community center, and truly acts like a man who sees the Friends for who they are as people, not by their challenges. He plays a big role in helping Harrelson understand each of them as the basketball season progresses. The basketball games are very well directed; Bobby Farrelly does a nice job tracking the players as they move up and down the court and the Friends do a wonderful job with the game itself.
Overall, I would recommend checking out Champions in theaters when you can. I was lucky enough to be able to see this film early on Regal’s Mystery Monday and the audience absolutely loved it. It’s full of laughs, heart, great basketball action, and a terrific soundtrack as well. While it feels like a throwback film, it’s nice to still be getting sports stories like this that highlight individuals who don’t always get the spotlight; they are the true champions.
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