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Review: Champions

March 9, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

After older brother Peter Farrelly, one half of the 1990s and 2000s comedy titans the Farrelly Brothers, went solo to direct the Oscar-winning Green Book, younger brother Bobby Farrelly now branches out on his own with the feel-good sports movie Champions.

A remake of the 2018 Spanish film Campeones, Woody Harrelson stars in this American version as Marcus Marakovich, the self-centred and short-tempered assistant basketball coach with the minor league Iowa Stallions, who believes that he should be with the NBA.

Marcus gets fired from his position after shoving the head coach (Ernie Hudson) to the ground during a game after a disagreement over a play. This leads to a drunk driving accident that gets him sentenced to ninety days of community service coaching the Friends; a local team of adults with intellectual disabilities run out of the community centre, who have eyes towards competing in the Special Olympics.

While Marcus starts off as brusque and somewhat insensitive (he nearly says the “r-word” in court, but is admonished for it, and later punches someone who tries to use it), he soon becomes attuned to the needs of the individual teammates and begins to take his job coaching them seriously. Among the players is Johnny (Kevin Ianucci), a young man with Down syndrome who happens to be the younger brother of Alex (Kaitlin Olson), a local woman whom Marcus has hooked up with. The natural sibling bond between Johnny and Alex is one of the strongest and most poignant through-lines of the film.

It’s mostly easy to see where this story will end up as the film follows a lot of the usual inspirational sports movie beats, but Champions is still a frequently enjoyable film regardless, with a good message and positive representation to boot. Say what you will about the Farrelly Brothers, but they have always made a point of highlighting characters with disabilities in their films, and Champions succeeds by authentically casting disabled actors in these roles.

While the screenplay by Mark Rizzo still casts Marcus as the main character, and the story does predictably centre around him learning to be more tolerant and less selfish by coaching the Friends, the supporting characters also refreshingly have their own storylines about holding jobs and wanting to live independently. They are treated as adults, especially when talking about sex and relationships, and given their own satisfying arcs within the film (as a side note, I have been around the disability community my entire life and personally found the characters to be portrayed respectfully and accurately).

The film makes good use of Harrelson’s gruff exterior with a decent guy inside persona in the leading role, and he is matched by Olson as the slightly surly love interest. The young actors who make up the supporting cast as the Friends are all given chances to shine, and often steal scenes with their comic line deliveries, including Madison Tevlin as the sassy Conentino, a player who is brought in off the injured list. Shot in Manitoba, mostly standing in for Iowa (save for the No Frills obviously in the background of one shot), the entire production has a polished, commercially accessible feel to it that recalls the studio comedies of the mid-2000s.

The film is ultimately bolstered by its feel-good message about the multiple ways you can become a champion; including standing up for yourself, demanding respect, and moving past your own personal obstacles. That might sound like a predictable life lesson, but it’s an undeniably inspiring one, delivered in crowd-pleasing fashion.

Champions opens exclusively in theatres on March 10th.

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