Champions (2023)

Every dream team starts somewhere.

Directed by Bobby Farrelly — famous for helming quirky comedies such as There’s Something About Mary (1998) and Me, Myself & Irene (2000) — Champions is a mighty effort for filmmaker Farrelly junior, who parts from older brother Peter for his solo directorial debut. In the past, the Farrelly’s have been known for exploring some fairly touchy subject matter within their films, and Champions, just like most other Farrelly outings, is no exception. This time around, Bobby spotlights disability, both physical and intellectual, giving us a heartwarming and crowd-pleasing fish-out-of-water story about a bad-tempered, down-on-his-luck minor-league basketball coach, Marcus Marakovich (Woody Harrelson, in a role he was born to play), who’s ordered by the courts to coach a team of players with intellectual disabilities after an unfortunate drunk-driving incident following a string of bad luck.

Keep on ballin’ …

With a screenplay by Mark Rizzo, Champions is the English-language adaptation of Javier Fesser’s award-winning 2018 Spanish film titled Campeones — and a somewhat faithful retelling at that. Moving the action from Madrid, Spain, to Des Moines, Iowa, we first meet protagonist Marcus as a gruff G-league coach on his way to making it into the NBA. Marcus’ arrogance and pig-headedness, however, lands him in some hot water after a physical tiff with fellow coach and long-time friend Phil Perretti (Ernie Hudson), which makes it to SportsCenter; the heated argument is caused by a disagreement over an on-court strategy. Consequently, the negative media coverage gets him fired from his assisting coaching position at Iowa Stallions, a minor-league basketball team. Marcus’ luck, though, goes from bad to worse after he drives straight into a parked police car while being well over the legal drinking limit.

Marcus’ fortune changes when he’s offered 90 days of community service, avoiding a 90-day jail sentence, and instead must coach a local basketball team of disabled players known as the Friends. Needless to say, Marcus is less than impressed when he meets the ragtag team of misfits, who have non-existent ball skills and know very little about the game — but, hey, at least they’re enthusiastic. Somewhat insensitive about their conditions, Marcus just coasts along apathetically, unconvinced that the group has any potential as a team. To complicate matters further, Marcus has an unexpected run-in with one of the player’s older sister Alex (Kaitlin Olson), with whom he recently had a one-night stand, their steamy hookup not ending well.

Believe and achieve

As time passes, Marcus begins to realize that each player has a unique background, with all members of the Friends being extremely persistent in working together and gelling well as a unit. As a result, Marcus becomes more motivated to whip the players into shape, realizing that coaching them to the Special Olympics could be a step towards reclaiming his old job — and clearing his tainted reputation. In the process, the Friends achieve far more than Marcus thought possible, the once boorish, doubtful coach slowly growing fond of the team and learning more about himself in the process.

As a film, Champions follows your typical underdog sports story, the type where a ‘disgraced’ coach is forced to do the impossible and transform a struggling team into a bunch of winners. What makes Champions shine, however, is its wholesome messages about people with special needs, with Farrelly and his team portraying all the disabled characters as actual people with dignity and respect whilst getting the audience to laugh with them and not at them — most of the jokes are at Marcus’ expense and not the other way around. So, Champions is not exploitative and is very respectable to the disabled community. See, while Marcus initially starts off as being very ignorant towards the Friends, his interaction with the team helps him see them as people with hopes, dreams, and fears — Marcus’ problem at the start of the story is that he keeps seeing players for their abilities and never takes the time to get to know them as individuals.

‘I teach kids how to shoot and steal.’

It helps that Farrelly and co. give us time to get to know all of the Friends and how they are beneficial to the team, with filmmakers taking us deeper into their stories and psyche; the Friends are all presented as complete human beings here, trying to make sense of the world and live their lives the best way they can. The characters that really stand out within the team are Kevin Iannucci’s Johnny, who warms up to his new coach rather quickly. Johnny is a down syndrome boy that wants to move out of home and be more independent but is being held back by his family. Then there’s Madison Tevlin’s scene-stealing firecracker Constantino, the only girl on the squad; she basically mocks Marcus at every opportunity she gets — “you’re no McConaughey,” she even says to him at one point. And then we have Joshua Felder’s Darius, a stellar ballplayer that refuses to hit the courts for Marcus, his backstory probably the most poignant and hard-hitting in the film. Heck, all of the team’s personal stories are worthwhile and bring something valuable to the table — Matthew Von Der Ahe’s sex-obsessed Craig is a riot, too!

All the performances in Champions are terrific, the entire cast shooting hoops, radiating with palpable energy. Woody Harrelson feels at home here, delivering one of his best and cheekiest performances to date as Marcus, the former White Men Can’t Jump (1992) star showing us that he can still cut it on the court, and at 61 years of age, too. Here, Harrelson organically transforms from a total a-hole to a lovable dick to a committed friend and coach, taking the audience along for the journey — and boy, is this a journey worth sitting in the courtside seats for. It helps that Harrelson shares some great chemistry with all of his co-stars, chiefly Kaitlin Olson’s Alex, a woman in her forties who makes a living by performing Shakespeare for kids and still lives at home with her mother (Barbara Pollard). The scenes with the pair are funny, sweet, and moving, Marcus and Alex smoothening one another’s rougher edges. Elsewhere, Cheech Marin, The War with Grandpa (2020), has a few great moments as Julio, the manager of the center where the Friends train, as does Matt Cook, who portrays Sonny, an aspiring coach that wants to be friends with Marcus.

Teamwork makes the dream work!

Ultimately, audiences probably already know exactly what to expect here; Champions is a heart-lifting and fun sports-centric comedy-drama, the film treading a familiar redemption story arc. But, by the time the final act hits, and Harrelson’s Marcus delivers his touching, motivational halftime locker room speech, you’ll no doubt be rooting for ‘the champions’ to finish in first. Champions is a slam dunk, so don’t miss it!

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by Stu Cachia (S-Littner)

Champions is released through Universal Pictures Australia