In ‘Champions,’ Winning Is Less Important Than How To Play the Game

Woody Harrelson plays a guy down-on-his-luck, who channels his inner winner with the help of a group of unlikely young athletes, in the feel-good sports comedy “Champions.” Based on the 2018 Spanish film “Campeones,” this feature, the solo directorial debut of Bobby Farrelly, follows a minor league basketball coach, Marcus (Harrelson), who, after a spectacular downfall, is “court-ordered to care” about a group of young adults with intellectual disabilities.

When we first meet Marcus, he’s living the swinging bachelor life, or as much of a swinging bachelor life one can live in Des Moines, Iowa. He is the assistant coach of a local G-league team, and despite appearing to be well into his fifties, he still has big dreams of coaching in the NBA. His focus on work and overall unpleasant demeanor means he has trouble making personal connections, and the morning after a Tinder hookup with Alex (Kaitlin Olson), he has a canned speech ready to go. Fortunately, she is able to call him out on his bullshit, which comes to be important later on. 

Marcus’ spiral begins after he shoves his boss, Coach Phil Perretti (Ernie Hudson), during a game after a disagreement over a play. The incident is caught on camera, and Marcus becomes comedic fodder for the internet and ESPN. Afterwards, he gets arrested for drunk driving, and his sentence is 90 days of community service, with the judge ordering him to coach the Friends, a community center basketball team composed of young adults with intellectual disabilities. Cheech Marin plays Julio, the gentle soul who manages the rec center, and he tells Marcus that he just has to make the Friends feel like a real team, and if they can make it to the Special Olympics, great. Sounds simple enough for a man with his experience, but it is not so easy when one considers that Marcus’ big weakness is bonding with others.

That is Marcus’ great challenge here, to become a fully formed human, one who can nurture and inspire his players. Helping him grow is Alex, who turns out to be the older sister of one of his players, Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), a tenderhearted young man with Downs Syndrome who works with animals. Although Marcus and Alex start out as friends with benefits, a deeper connection blossoms between them. Harrelson and Olson have a great back and forth here, as Alex is not afraid to hold Marcus accountable, especially after his image makeover in the media makes his head get big.

But the heart of the film is the Friends and their relationships with Marcus and each other. Iannucci and Madison Tevlin, who plays Consentino, the only woman on the team, really shine here, and Tevlin especially shows off great comedic chops. Farrelly makes a point to show that the athletes are real people with important relationships, jobs and hobbies, and not just puppets in someone’s redemption story. There’s an important subplot here involving another player, Benny (James Day Keith), having to deal with an abusive boss (with encouragement from Marcus). The one criticism is that it would have made the film richer if there would have been more scenes of the players living their lives and dealing with conflict outside of basketball.

At the end of it all, “Champions” has a message that is predictable, but, nevertheless, very important. And that is that when it comes to sports and just about anything else in life, winning is not always the most important thing. It is more about the journey, good sportsmanship, and the lessons learned along the way.

Champions” releases March 10 in theaters nationwide.