Champions Review

Marcus (Woody Harrelson) is a fading basketball coach who, after being arrested, is forced into a stint of community service: coaching a team of young disabled basketball players. Initially reluctant, Marcus soon grows to respect and admire his players. But when the NBA makes an offer, he must make a big choice.

by John Nugent |
Updated on

Once best known as purveyors of puerility, the Farrelly brothers are these days exploring a modicum of maturity. Peter Farrelly scaled Oscar glory back in 2018 with Green Book; now younger brother Bobby returns with this comedy-drama about disability and difference that’s more mature than, say, Dumb & Dumber. Based on the Spanish film of the same name, it tells the story of Marcus (Woody Harrelson), a grumpy, hard-drinking basketball coach whose career is on the rocks after he finds himself fired from his minor league team and arrested for a DUI.

This is ultimately a warm-hearted celebration of the uplifting power of sports.

His punishment comes in the form of community service, managing a Special Olympics basketball team, as they look to ascend the regional leagues and actually cohere as a team. Nothing about what follows will be of any surprise to anyone who has ever seen a movie about sports or disability: yes, Marcus’s coldly ambitious heart soon thaws to the charms of his young players, and yes, this plucky team against all odds make their way to the final, where they ultimately learn that the real victory was the friends they made along the way, etc.

You know the drill by now. What keeps it eminently watchable are some charming performances and Mark Rizzo’s frequently witty, warm script. Harrelson’s Texan drawl plays nicely low-key and naturalistically in areas that can often feel unnaturally formulaic; he’s always exceptional value for money. The young cast that make up his team are great company too, all cast from authentic backgrounds, and the film takes unusual care in showing that it is entirely possible to have a rich, fulfilled life while living with disability. Farrelly — who has previously employed disabled actors in films like Shallow Hal and There’s Something About Mary, earning both criticism and praise for his depictions — largely celebrates his young cast here, rather than making them the butt of jokes.

Farrelly’s direction is often fairly blunt and first-base — there are some egregious needle-drops on the soundtrack, including Chumbawamba’s ‘Tubthumping’ — and it teeters on the edges of bad taste and condescension, without ever totally crossing the line. This is ultimately a warm-hearted celebration of the uplifting power of sports. Not quite a slam dunk, but a decent play.

It’s crude, first-base and stuffed with sports movie clichés, but Champions is a film with its heart firmly in the right place.
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