Champions 2023 Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Bobby Farrelly
Stars: Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olson, Cheech Marin, Ernie Hudson, Matt Cook, Kevin Iannucci, Joshua Felder, Madison Tevlin, James Day Keith, Bradley Edens, Ashton Gunning, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Tom Sinclair, Alex Hintz, Casey Metcalfe, Barbara Pollard, Alexandra Castillo.
Marcus Marakovich (Woody Harrelson) is an assistant minor league basketball coach who hopes to make it to the NBA. He is a bit of a hot head who often argues with the head coach over tactics and strategies, which has seen him unable to hold down his position for too long. But after a drunk driving incident in which he crashes into a police car Marcus finds himself temporarily following a different career trajectory. He is sentenced to serve 90 days community service, helping to coach a special Olympics basketball team.
At first Marcus just wants to serve out his time so he can return to coaching professional teams. What the team lacks in skills they make up for in enthusiasm. But as the misfit team known as “the Friends” begins to come together and experience some measure of success he soon begins to bond and form a connection with them. Each of the team members are well developed individuals who are given their own quirks and distinctive personalities. Darius (Joshua Felder) the team’s best player refuses to play under Marcus, for reasons which we learn later and which add a poignant layer to the material. Showtime (Bradley Edens) only throws the ball backwards over his head, while Benny (James Day Keith) misses many games because his boss at the restaurant where he works in the kitchen refuses to give him time off. Johnny (Kevin Iannucci) suffers from Down Syndrome but wants to become more independent, but he also has an aversion to showering.
This is a formulaic remake of the Goya award winning 2018 Spanish film Campeones, but it largely avoids the typical schmaltz and sentimentality that infects Hollywood remakes. Champions is another variation on the popular underdog sports story and as such it does serve up many of the tropes of the genre. It is a crowd-pleasing family-oriented comedy. The film has been directed by Bobby Farrelly who specialises in comedies about oddball characters (Dumb And Dumber, Kingpin, etc). Farrelly usually co-directs with his brother Peter, but here he makes his solo directorial debut. And he largely eschews the raunchy, gross out humour of films like There’s Something About Mary, etc, that has become their trademark.
Champions has been written by Mark Rizzo, who comes from a background in television, having written episodes for the animated series Gravity Falls, etc. The film deals with themes such as tolerance, disability and family, and at times it feels like something of a hybrid between The Mighty Ducks and the Farrelly brothers own 2005 comedy The Ringer. As with the original though the film’s treatment of the characters is respectful. However, the setting has been transplanted to snowy Des Moines in Iowa.
As with the original, Farrelly has cast the team with actors who suffer from some form of disability or impairment which lends an authenticity to the material. One of the standouts within the Friends is the scene stealing Madison Tevlin, who plays the feisty and enjoyably bossy Cozentino, a strong character who instinctively knows how to get the best out of her teammates.
For his part Harrelson is good, and he brings a mix of warmth, grit and humour to his flawed character which seems tailor made for him. He interacts well with his costars. Ernie Hudson brings a gruff quality to his role as Phil Perretti, Marcus’ longtime friend and mentor. And Cheech Marin brings an easy-going charm to his role as Julio, the affable coordinator of the youth centre where the team regularly practices. Matt Cook gets some laughs with his role as Sonny, an aspiring coach who tries to befriend Marcus.
Kaitlin Olson (from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, etc) is bright and feisty as Alex, Johnny’s older sister. Marcus had a brief one-night stand with Alex which ended badly and there is plenty of tension between them as they try to work together for the benefit of the team. But Harrelson and Olson slowly develop a good chemistry.
A handful of reviewers have commented on the overly generous running time of 123 minutes for the film, but Farrelly’s Champions is actually one minute shorter than the original.