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Champions Review: Derivative Foul of a Sports Movie

Champions is as derivative and stale a sports movie as you can get, resulting in a foul end product that even strong lead performances can’t save.

Well, I’ll start things off by apologizing to Peter Farrelly. I gave his last film a rather negative review, but after seeing what his brother Bobby Farrelly was directing with Champions, even Peter’s lesser work is looking like a relative bright spot. I’m sure Champions has good intentions, but outside of good performances, that is just about all it has. I can’t speak for the original film it’s remaking, but on its own, Champions is one of the most derivative, play-it-safe movies I’ve maybe ever seen.

Marcus (Woody Harrelson) is a minor-league basketball coach who ends up fired from his job and arrested after a drunk driving accident. He’s sentenced to 90 days of community service by coaching a team of basketball players with learning disabilities, giving them a shot at the Special Olympics while looking for a way to return to the professional scene. One of the players (Kevin Iannucci) also just happens to be the younger brother of Marcus’s bitter one-night-stand Alex (Kaitlyn Olsen), which of course leads to their cold hearts melting as they re-explore a potential relationship.

From there, everything that you’d probably predict to happen in Champions happens. And I mean everything. Marcus initially just sees these offbeat kids as a means to an end but warms up to them. One of them is the most resilient but eventually lets him in after a heart-to-heart talk. Marcus gets more intimate with Alex as their complicated relationship brings him further into her personal life. But she hides her fears of getting hurt behind a tough exterior, which puts them at odds conveniently at the exact same time a falling out happens between Marcus and the rest of the team. What brings that on? Well, Marcus’s connections are hard at work throughout the movie getting him an NBA job, so take a wild guess where that goes.

loud and clear reviews champions 2023 movie film
(L to R) Kevin Iannucci as Johnathan, Kaitlin Olson as Alex, James Day Keith as Benny, and Woody Harrelson as Marcus in director Bobby Farrelly’s CHAMPIONS, a Focus Features release. (Shauna Townley / Focus Features)

I know it sounds like I’m spoiling this entire film, but there’s really nothing to spoil because, again, you’ve probably seen all these tropes a million times, especially in the sports movie genre. You can see every plot point coming a million miles away, to the point of outright absurdity. A lot of the drama doesn’t feel like it’s coming from a real place that’s driven by how these characters would naturally act, but from the perceived necessity to include certain clichés. The falling out I mentioned largely comes from Marcus’s personal growth suddenly doing a complete 180, because otherwise we couldn’t get our quick and easy third-act segment where everyone hates each other.

I know that a lot of movies rely on familiar and even derivative templates, but the best ones usually have something new, some different spin that we can’t always 100% anticipate. I also have a history of being a bit more forgiving towards derivative or predictable plots if they’re executed and directed really well. But Champions is just … okay on that front, at best. Woody Harrelson is by far the best part of the movie, and Kaitlyn Olsen completely outshines the material she’s working with. But the comedy mostly falls flat. I can count the number of times I even lightly chuckled on one hand, and I can count more times when I rolled my eyes at the occasional bit of gross-out humor that harkens back to the worst of the Farrelly brothers’ tendencies.

The basketball team itself consists of the squeamish nerd, the horny one, the one with a peculiar habit, the sassy token girl, the one Black kid (who doubles as the one with the mysterious tragic backstory, how convenient!), and other recycled cutouts. They’re all acted really well, though I’m of two minds about how they’re portrayed. Just speaking anecdotally, I’ve worked with people with developmental disabilities. And while I do see resemblances to those real-life examples in here, their abnormalities in Champions are definitely simplified and stock. But at least these characters are not shown to be one-dimensional or brain-dead. They do all have distinct personalities and feel like actual people … they’re just not fresh in the slightest, even with the angle of their disabilities.

A part of me feels bad tearing Champions apart so much, because I want to believe that everyone involved with it meant well. Plus, if it wasn’t the millionth film to do all of what it does, it would be mostly passable. But the staleness of its derivative formula just really irritated me, and it’s not salvaged by the standard directing, unfunny humor, or soundtrack that’s overloaded with an excessive amount of pop/rock songs. Because of that, I can’t recommend Champions unless you have a huge soft spot for sports movies, or if you’re really forgiving of films that reuse these kinds of tropes … though in both cases, I’d still recommend other movies over this, even recent ones like 2020’s The Way Back. Bottom line, Champions might inspire some people, but I consider it anything but a slam dunk.

Get it on Apple TV

Champions is now available to watch on digital and on demand. Watch Champions!

Champions: Trailer (Focus Features)
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