Four former high school basketball players and their coach gather for a reunion in Pennsylvania. Twenty-five years ago, they were state champions. Now, they are all still struggling with the legacy of that championship season. George (Bruce Dern) is the mayor of Scranton and is in a fierce race for reelection. Phil (Paul Sorvino) is a wealthy and corrupt businessman who is having an affair with George’s wife. James (Stacy Keach) is a high school principal who is still struggling to come to terms with his abusive father. James’s younger brother, Tom (Martin Sheen), is an alcoholic who can not hold down a steady job. The Coach (Robert Mitchum) remains the Coach. All four of the men still want his approval, even though they know that he is actually an old bigot who pushed them to cut too many corners on their way to the championship.
Though Cannon film may have been best known for producing action films with actors like Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, and Michael Dudikoff, they occasionally tried to improve their image with a prestige picture like That Championship Season. Not only is this film based on Jason Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play but Cannon also hired Miller himself to direct. (Before Miller was brought in, That Championship Season was nearly directed by William Friedkin, who directed Miller in The Exorcist.) While no one knew the text better than Miller, this was also his directorial debut and sometimes, his inexperience shows. The first half of the movie does a good job of opening up the play but the second half takes place almost entirely in the Coach’s house and is very stagey, never escaping its theatrical origins.
One thing That Championship Season has going for it is an excellent cast. Dern, Sorvino, Keach, and even Sheen rarely got roles with as much depth as the ones that they got here and four of them make the best of the opportunity. As for Robert Mitchum, he was known for being a mercurial actor but here, he gives one of the better performances of the latter half of his career. Because of the efforts of the ensemble, That Championship Season is one of the better Cannon prestige pictures, though Chuck Norris is still missed.