In Champions, Woody Harrelson plays Marcus Marakovich.
Marcus is a basketball coach. He believes that he has the talent and the ability to be a coach in the NBA and he’ll tell that to anyone who will listen. Unfortunately, Marcus also has a reputation for being self-destructive and temperamental. He has sabotaged his career with too many public fights. As his friend and fellow coach Phil (Ernie Hudson) tells him, Marcus knows everything about basketball but he doesn’t know how to connect with the players. Marcus is so concerned with winning that he never gets to know the people that are playing for him.
Of course, Marcus has more problems than just his inability to connect with players. An on-court brawl leads to Marcus losing his assistant coaching job. A drunk driving incident leads to Marcus landing in jail. Phil bails him out but Marcus will still have to do community service to avoid serving time. Marcus is assigned to spend the next 90 days coaching The Friends, a basketball team made up of players who have learning disabilities. Though at first reluctant, Marcus doesn’t want to go to prison and, after a rough start, he and the Friends start to bond. Marcus becomes a better coach and the Friends become a better team and soon, it looks like they might even be playing in the North American Special Olympics Finals in Winnipeg. Along the way, Marcus also falls for Alex (Kaitlin Olson), the sister of one of his players.
Champions is a heartfelt film that suffers from the fact that there’s really not a single surprising moment to be found within it. As soon as Woody Harrelson shows up as a hard-drinking and cynical basketball coach who is looking for one more chance to make it to the NBA, most members of the audience will know exactly what to expect. It’s not a shock that he eventually bonds with his players. It’s not a shock that he falls in love with Alex nor that he eventually calls Alex out for using her brother’s needs as an excuse to not get close to anyone. It’s not even a surprise when Cheech Marin shows up as the cheerful manager of the rec center where the Friends practice. And it’s certainly not a surprise that Marcus’s work with the Friends leads to him getting an offer from an NBA team, an offer that might not be as altruistic as Marcus wants to believe. (The team is mired in a scandal and feels that hiring Marcus would bring them some good publicity.) Marcus is faced with a big decision and the choice that he makes won’t surprise anyone. At one point, Marcus specifically mentions the film Hoosiers, as if the simple act of acknowledging the fact that Champions isn’t exactly breaking new ground will somehow make up for the film’s predictability.
That doesn’t mean that Champions isn’t a likable film, of course. It’s a crowd pleaser. The actors playing the Friends actually are all learning disabled and the film portrays them all as individuals with their own unique personalities and abilities. It’s hard not to get excited for them when they succeed on the court and the film refuses to use any of their disabilities for cheap laughs. The film’s heart is in the right place and there’s always something to be said for that. But, as I watched Champions, I became very much aware that this was a film that I wanted to like more than I actually did. It was hard for me not to compare Woody Harrelson’s well-meaning but self-destructive coach to the similar character than Ben Affleck played in The Way Back. The Way Back worked because it took a familiar character type but then allowed that character and the story to go in an unexpected direction. Watching Champions, it was hard for me to not wish that the film had been willing to take a few more risks.
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