REVIEW: “Champions” (2023)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette)

Despite their predictability and penchant for re-plowing old ground, many of us still love sports movies. We love feel-good moments. We love rooting for the underdogs. We love redemption stories. We love the competition. We love the camaraderie. We love seeing individuals or teams overcome insurmountable odds. Borrowing the words of the late great Jim McKay, we love “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”.

This latest sports movie to come down the pike epitomizes what you get when the above two contrasting elements come together. “Champions” is every bit as predictable and formulaic as any sports movie that came before it. There’s hardly a story beat that you haven’t seen before, and you’ll know the outcome within the first 15 minutes. Yet it also checks some of the boxes that fans of sports movies are looking for. And as an added bonus it stars Woody Harrelson, a genuinely funny actor who can play snarky wisecracking characters in his sleep.

Harrelson plays plays Marcus Marakovich, an assistant coach for the Iowa Stallions of the G League (the NBA’s minor league basketball organization). Marcus has a brilliant mind for basketball, but is terrible at building relationships which has led to him being fired as the head coach for Ohio State and kicked out of several international leagues. So now he’s stuck in Des Moines, working under his friend and the Stallions’ head coach Phil Perretti (Ernie Hudson). But his eyes are set on making it to the NBA, no matter what it takes.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

But things go sideways after an ugly on-court incident with Phil. To make matters worse, Marcus gets behind the wheel after knocking back a few too many drinks at a local bar. He rear-ends a police car and is arrested and booked for driving under the influence. The judge gives Marcus a choice – 90 days of community service at a local recreation center coaching adults with intellectual disabilities or 18 months in prison. The choice he makes turns out to be life-changing.

Marcus meets the rec center’s manager Julio (Cheech Marin) who introduces him to his new team, The Friends. They’re a fun and charismatic collection of characters with disabilities. Among them is the animal-loving but shower-hating Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), a brainy fact-dropping chatterbox named Marlon (Casey Metcalfe), the hard-working and easy-going Benny (James Day Keith), the straight-shooting Consentino (Madison Tevlin), and the cryptic Darius (Joshua Felder), the team’s best player who refuses to play for their new coach.

At first, all Marcus sees in his players are their disabilities. But over time his eyes are opened and he begins to see them for who they are underneath. He begins to see them as people with their own personalities, their own feelings, their own backgrounds. He even strikes up a no-strings-attached relationship with Johnny’s sister, Alex (Kaitlin Olson). The closer he gets with the team, the better they begin to play. And before long The Friends find themselves in the hunt for a spot in the upcoming Special Olympics.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

“Champions” is the solo directorial debut for Bobby Farrelly, one half of the mischievous (or notorious, depending on how you look at them) Farrelly brothers duo. Written for the screen by Mark Rizzo, the film is an adaptation of a 2018 Spanish film of the same name. Rizzo reinvents some of the characters and changes some of the details, but the core story remains the same. Unfortunately the movie has its issues, some of which can best be described as the Farrelly effect.

By all accounts this could easily have been a funny feel-good movie for the whole family. But in very Farrelly fashion, the filmmaker can’t resist the urge to be bawdy and crude. It makes me wonder exactly what audience he’s targeting. Even worse, some of the gags seem to be taking advantage of the characters’ disabilities and exploiting them for laughs. That’s not me being overly sensitive as some of the humor from those same characters works extremely well. But you can tell when jokes seem written solely for affect. That happens too often in “Champions”

Yet despite its predictability and few instances of poor judgment, “Champions” has enough crowd-pleasing mojo to make it worth sitting through. And it also has Woody Harrelson who carries much of the movie on his back. It’s hard not to love the young cast of intellectually disabled actors who give their all and are clearly having a great time. But Harrelson is the anchor. He’s funny, even a little charming, and without him “Champions” would have a tough time staying together.


5 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Champions” (2023)

  1. I ain’t seeing this. I used to like the Farrelly Brothers but let’s be honest. They haven’t made a watchable film since Me, Myself, & Irene as the last thing I saw from either of them is Dumb and Dumber To which really fucking sucked. Why would I want to waste my time with this bullshit?

    • It’s probably higher than it should be. I did like Harrelson’s performance and it was great seeing a prominent roles given to people with intellectual disabilities. Buuuut the movie isn’t all that great.

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