THE STORY – A former minor-league basketball coach receives a court order to manage a team of players with intellectual disabilities. Despite his doubts, he soon realizes that together they can go further than they ever imagined.
THE CAST – Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olson, Ernie Hudson & Cheech Marin
THE TEAM – Bobby Farrelly (Director) & Mark Rizzo (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 124 Minutes
A very talented but overly arrogant minor league coach gets fired from his position because of his behavior on the court, then gets drunk enough that he lands himself in court, where he gets sentenced to community service: Coaching a ragtag team that he feels is beneath him. In the process of teaching the team how to become better at the game and rack up wins, he teaches them life lessons and begins to become a better person himself. Sound familiar? Yes, Bobby Farrelly’s “Champions” may officially be a remake of the 2018 Spanish film “Campeones,” but it’s really just a spin on Disney’s 1990s hit “The Mighty Ducks,” itself a barely disguised rewrite of “The Bad News Bears.” The only difference? Instead of coaching kids, here, our intrepid coach must work with a team of disabled adults. While the film’s sense of inclusion is wonderful to see, and the ensemble infuses the film with a feeling of genuine joy, something is missing from “Champions,” something difficult to define but that nevertheless holds the film back from achieving its good intentions.
The obstacle for Coach Marcus (Woody Harrelson) is different than for most coaches in uplifting sports films. Usually, the coach has to find a way to turn terrible (or at the very least unmotivated) players into winners over the course of one season. Here, it’s more about Marcus overcoming his own biases against the players he has to coach. Marcus hears that his team is made up of disabled people and thinks that it means they’re all going to be bad players, but in truth, the Friends team is made up of Special Olympics athletes who only lose their first game with Marcus by a handful of points. They’re not bad; they’re just not great. It’s a clever screenwriting trick, using expectations of storytelling conventions to expose the audience’s biases against disabled people and have them go on Marcus’s journey alongside him, learning that these people are not “less than” in any way. Marcus does manage to teach the team members some more advanced strategic plays, but the film is always very clear that its story is more focused on Marcus’s growth than the team members.
But there’s the rub! In focusing on Marcus’s story instead of that of the team members, Farrelly and screenwriter Mark Rizzo (and original screenwriters Javier Fesser and David Marqués) cut themselves off at the knees. The film pushes its disabled cast members to the side, not celebrating their talent as much as how wonderful their abled co-stars are for treating them just like they treat everybody else. It’s a tough thing to reconcile even as the film goes out of its way to present all of its disabled characters as fully developed human beings with rich inner lives as opposed to the caricatures they’re usually presented as. Yes, there are definitely too many sex jokes, but they come off as somehow appropriately immature, clearly coming from young men with sex on the brain who want to see how far they can go with their new coach. Thankfully, the ensemble of disabled performers is outstanding, giving deeply felt, lived-in performances as good as any others you’ll see this year. Madison Tevlin is a charismatic force of nature as the hard-as-nails Cosentino, the lone woman on the team; Joshua Felder is heartbreaking as Darius, the team’s best player who refuses to play for Marcus; and Kevin Iannucci is more than able to hold his own opposite the comic genius Kaitlin Olson (who plays his sister) and Harrelson as Johnny, the de facto team leader who becomes attached to his new coach.
For his part, Harrelson is his usual self, all laidback folksy charm is barely hidden under a gruff exterior. His affability and generous screen presence make it incredibly easy to get on Marcus’s side early on, and without him, the film might not work at all. His fantastic chemistry with Olson, as a hookup who becomes something more once he starts coaching her little brother, almost makes you forgive the film for giving its disabled performers less to do. The two are each great on their own – Olson never misses an opportunity for deep character work even while easily dunking every single joke – but together, they really spark, making you root for these two screwed-up adults to get themselves together and make a go of it.
Sadly though, the screenplay isn’t entirely up to the performers’ level. The relationship drama is boilerplate nonsense, the sports drama doesn’t have any real stakes, and even Marcus’s arc is fairly circumspect. His diagnosed fault of not caring about his players as people is actually helpful to him early on, as he doesn’t see the team members as their disabilities but purely as players with strengths he must build up and weaknesses he must avoid. But since the team is already pretty good, to begin with, there’s not really a sense of what, if anything, Marcus has really done for them (other than teaching Johnny how to execute a play called a “pick and roll”), which makes the already bland basketball game scenes all the more difficult to get excited about. Another overplayed, high-energy “fun” song plays on the soundtrack each time the team plays, eliciting nothing but eye rolls. Yup, it’s EMF’s “Unbelievable” for the 500 millionth time! Uh oh, here comes OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” get ready to shake it! The team is entering the court, which means it’s time for the Harlem Globetrotters theme music!
The unimaginative filmmaking choices work well enough, but they don’t satisfy like the best genre films do because the script has emphasized the wrong parts of the story. This could have been mitigated if the film managed to nail the ending, and the script does craft a nice message about how little victories can make you just as much of a winner as big ones. Still, the final moments end too abruptly, not allowing the audience a moment with the characters to savor their journey. “Champions” isn’t meant to be savored, though. This isn’t a gourmet meal; it’s fast food. It’s filling in the moment, but you may feel empty a few minutes after finishing.