Minor league assistant basketball coach Marcus (Woody Harrelson) has a problem. He knows the game inside and out, he knows his players strengths and weaknesses, but he has no time for them as people.
When a tantrum leads to him assaulting head coach Phil Perretti (Ernie Hudson), he is promptly fired. Marcus seeks solace at the bottom of a bottle and soon earns himself a drink driving conviction.
Sentenced to 90 days community service, he is ordered to manage a basketball team for adults with intellectual disabilities. The Iowa Friends have all the passion for the game and life itself which Marcus lacks. Although still attempting to work his way back to the NBA, Marcus quickly falls in love with his new team. With his technical know-how and the Iowa Friends’ untapped abilities, they just might have what it takes to make it to the finals.
Directed by Bobby Farrelly (of the Farrelly Brothers) and written by Mark Rizzo, Champions is based on a Spanish film of the same name. This is exactly the type of story I would have expected from the Farrelly Brothers. While they have a reputation of gross out comedies, something I greatly appreciate is their representation of people with disabilities. Admittedly, in the past there has been unflattering portrayals in tackling such a subject. However, the two have shown to have the utmost respect for the differently abled with films like The Ringer and their inclusive casting decisions.
Although billed as a Woody Harrelson movie, the real stars of this film are the Iowa Friends team-mates themselves. As much as I enjoyed The Ringer, only about half the supporting cast were in fact disabled. With Champions, much like the original film, the team is comprised entirely of non-professional actors with real life disabilities.
Beyond the positive representation, great care is taken for these characters to be treated as human beings, each with their own personality. We see them as people and are encouraged to look past their disabilities. Not only is exploitation avoided but itself becomes a subject the film tackles later head-on.
Harrelson for his part makes Marcus a likeable character from the start. His journey through the film not so extreme as being a bigot who needs to turn his life around. Rather, he is more disinterested in the league and learns a new respect for it as time goes on. Marcus’ relationship with Alex (Kaitlin Olsen), the sister of one of the players, grows in a refreshingly realistic way and is a nice touch to the film as well.
Where Champions falters at times is with its comedy. This more realistic take is much different to the type of humour one may expect from Farrelly’s previous work. Writer Mark Rizzo leaving some scenes to simply peter out without much of a punchline. There are still plenty of laughs to be had though, most of which at Marcus’ expense more than anything nefarious or cruel aimed at his team.
The storyline of Champions is a fairly predictable one as far as sports movies go. With most of the challenges you expect to appear when you expect them to. But predictability can’t hold back a film with this much heart and the story is still a joy to witness.
Champions is certainly a crowd pleaser as even the most jaded critic I think can find much to enjoy here. This is the very definition of a “feel good” movie and one that I am happy to recommend in an age of irony and cynicism. As a down to earth and heart-warming tale of redemption set in a world most films pretend doesn’t exist, I found myself smiling the whole way through.