“Champions” is a remake of a Spanish movie in which a disgraced basketball coach is forced to do community service by coaching a team of intellectually challenged kids. This is the type of movie that could be really disturbing if all the jokes are at the expense of the ‘slow kids’. But, it may surprise you that the situation is treated with much more respect than you might think.
Marcus (played by Woody Harrelson) is the basketball-obsessed coach, who wants perfection out of any team that he coaches. He is first seen after a Tinder date night with a nice woman named Alice (played by Kaitlin Olson). The morning after, Marcus is too involved with watching repeats of a recent game that he does not pay any attention to Alice. This is major part of Marcus and his flawed personality; he finds it too hard to connect with anyone.
That night, Marcus is helping at a very minor league (J-level team) Iowa Stallions, in Des Moines. He is an assistant coach to the head coach named Phil (played by Ernie Hudson). For the final play, Marcus argues with Phil about which play to run. It gets so heated that he pushes Phil down in the middle of the court. Another assistant coach named Sonny (played by Matt Cook) helps Phil back up, but Phil is so steamed that he fires Marcus right on the spot. Marcus is now an ex-assistant coach.
Marcus gets a little drunk and gets a DUI. That tends to happen when you hit the back of a police cruiser. Phil bails him out of jail, and later Marcus goes to court. He gets a choice between jail time and community service. The judge gives Marcus 90 days of service at the local community center. The job will be coaching the basketball team, consisting of a group of young intellectually disabled guys. Before the judge can change her mind, Marcus agrees.
At the community center, he meets Julio (played by Cheech Marin). The place is rundown and has barely any functioning equipment. Marcus meets the group of players he will coach for the next three months. The team is called the ‘Friends’. They are a pretty fun-loving group and they take to Marcus without a problem. Marcus, on the other hand, does not know what he has gotten into.
One of the guys on the team, Johnny (played by Kevin Iannucci) is very friendly, but he refuses to wash up or take a shower. He is deathly afraid of water, for some reason. Many of these fellows are pretty independent, and some live at a group home. Johnny lives at home still, but would like to move to the group home with his friends. One of the other guys, named Benny (played by James Day Keith) has a job at a restaurant.
Marcus has never been able, in any of his coaching positions, to really understand – or even care – about any of his players. But now these guys need so much help that he is forced to take it slow and explain all the concepts of team play. It starts to open up Marcus to see that these folks might have a disability, but they have the will and the heart to play as well any team. One day, he is walking home, and somebody is driving Johnny home. They stop and give Marcus a ride.
Well, how about that! Johnny’s older sister is Alice, the woman that Marcus ignored after the Tinder date nightmare. Boy, could things get any worse? Of course they can. The next game the ‘Friends’ play is an away game. Marcus asks Julio about a team bus that he can get from the community center. Julio tells him, the only way to get there is public transportation. So Marcus becomes the guy in charge of a rowdy group on the bus. That is until they all get tossed off halfway to the away game city.
Johnny calls his sister Alice, and she is able to pick-up everyone in a converted bus that she uses. She does Shakespeare education for the public school system. That along with acting in plays with a Shakespeare theater troupe. She decides that Marcus is starting to become a little more reasonable and she will help out on all the away games.
Marcus has also lost another key player, Benny, because his boss will not let him have the day off to travel and play. There is a new player brought in, named Consentino (played by Madison Tevlin). She is no dummy, and she gives Marcus a hard time.
Alice helps out with all of the out-of-town games. She and Marcus start up a little romance during the basketball season. Marcus is able connect with the ‘Friends’ and they become a fairly good team. Even Consentino begins to be impressed. But when comes down to crunch time, she is still able to kick out the coach for a ‘Players Only’ meeting. Marcus gets some news from his old pal from the J-level team, Sonny. He tries to get Marcus a good coaching position on a real NBA team.
Then it all comes down to a Special Olympic final game, and the ‘Friends’ have made it to the top. There is only one tiny problem. The game is in Winnipeg, and the community center has no money – says Julio. If they want to play, they will need to get the funds elsewhere. Alice, with her acting skills, cooks up plan with Marcus. It works out, and the whole is on the move.
How will they play in the Final game? Has Marcus learned that winning is important, but not as important as creating a rock-solid team? Will Marcus split after his 90 days are up, and head off to a Pro NBA Team. Will Alice see that Marcus has a good heart deep down, and give this lovable rascal another chance?
“Champions” is a movie in vein of “The Bad News Bears” and “The Mighty Ducks”. The plot rehashes many ideas from many other movies. But the charisma of Woody Harrelson brings it up a notch. The pairing of Harrelson and Kaitlin Olson works out pretty well. The Director (Bobby Farrelly) is one the brothers who made “Dumb and Dumber” and similar movies.
So there could have been too much emphasis on the “slow kids” aspect, but it is played with a lot of empathy. All the ‘Friends’ actors are real people with intellectual issues. Some have Down’s syndrome, and some have high-functioning Autistic issues. But each of them is treated as a real person, and not just as a goofy joke. That is refreshing.
“Champions” gets a lot of things right, and it treats the intellectually disabled team with respect, but the movie does not reach the Major Leagues.
Directed by: Bobby Farrelly
Screenplay by: Mark Rizzo
Based on: Campeones (by Javier Fesser and David Marqués)
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olson, Ernie Hudson, Cheech Marin
Cinematography: C. Kim Miles
Edited by: Julie Garcés
Music by: Michael Franti
Distributed by: Focus Features
Release date: March 10, 2023
Length: 124 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13 for strong language and crude/sexual reference
Genre: Sports Comedy
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