Review: ‘Champions’ (2023), starring Woody Harrelson

March 7, 2023

by Carla Hay

Kevin Iannucci, Kaitlin Olson, James Day Keith, Madison Tevlin, Cheech Marin and Woody Harrelson in “Champions” (Photo by Shauna Townley/Focus Features)

“Champions” (2023)

Directed by Bobby Farrelly

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Iowa city of Des Moines and in Winnipeg, Canada, the comedy film “Champions” (a remake of the 2018 Spanish film “Campeones”) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A problematic basketball coach, who was recently fired from a minor league team, takes on coaching duties for a group of young adults who aspire to compete in the Special Olympics. 

Culture Audience: “Champions” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Woody Harrelson, director Bobby Farrelly and formulaic comedies that aren’t very funny.

Alex Hintz, Casey Metcalfe, Matthew von der Ahe, Ashton Gunning, Tom Sinclair, Joshua Felder, James Day Keith, Madison Tevlin, Kevin Iannucci and Bradley Edens in “Champions” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

The intentions might have been good, but “Champions” is mostly cringeworthy comedy about a grouchy coach and his basketball players, who aspire to compete in the Special Olympics. This misguided movie is an awkward mixture of sappiness, crudeness, bad jokes, and negative stereotypes. To put it bluntly: “Champions” is not a movie that can be considered a worthy showcase for people with various disabilities. Most of the movie is just downright embarrassing for everyone involved.

Directed by Bobby Farrelly and written by Mark Rizzo, “Champions” is yet another “underdog team” sports movie, where the coach (usually middle-aged, usually cynical) is hoping for a personal and professional comeback/redemption by coaching a group of misfits (usually young, usually unruly) who are on a losing streak. “Champions” is a remake of the 2018 Spanish film “Campeones,” and it’s another example of a Hollywood remake that is inferior to the original movie. A remake is supposed to be a chance to improve on the original movie. In that regard, “Champions” is an utter failure.

In “Champions” (which takes place mostly in Des Moines, Iowa), the jaded coach is Marcus Markovich (played by Woody Harrelson), who gets fired from his job as an assistant basketball coach for a minor league team called the Iowa Stallions. Marcus was ousted from the team for instigating a physical altercation during a game with head coach Phil Perretti (played by Ernie Hudson), because Marcus disagreed with a game strategy that Phil wanted. Marcus was also recently arrested for crashing his car into a police car while Marcus was drunk.

In other words, Marcus (who wants to eventually become a National Basketball Association coach) has a bad temper, and he’s a screw-up. In court for the drunken car crash, Judge Mary Menendez (played by Alex Castillo) sentences Marcus to 90 days of community service. As part of his community service, he’s ordered to work at a non-profit community recreation center, which just so happens to have a group of young adults with “intellectual disabilities” who need a coach for their basketball team. In front of the judge—and to the embarrassment of Marcus’ attorney Charlie McGurk (played by Mike Smith)—Marcus calls these disabled people the “r” word.

And so begins the predictable journey of Marcus trying to train this team into going from a losing streak to achieving the goal of competing in the upcoming Special Olympics, which will take place in the Canadian city of Winnipeg. (“Champions” was actually filmed in Winnipeg.) Marcus gets some coaching help from an acquaintance named Sonny (played by Matt Cook), who has NBA connections. This basketball program is overseen by recreation center manager Julio (played by Cheech Marin), who is as reliable and even-tempered as Marcus is unpredictable and a loose cannon. Julio tells Marcus, “They don’t have to be champs. You just have to make them feel like a team.”

The team that Marcus coaches is called the Friends. The team member who gets the most screen time and personal backstory is Johnathan (played by Kevin Iannucci), nicknamed Johnny, who is living with Down syndrome. In the beginning of the movie, Johnny is afraid of taking baths or showers. Guess who’s going to help Johnny overcome this fear? The movie’s jokes and gags about Johnny’s body odor get tiresome very quickly. Johnny works at an animal shelter, so the movie can have some contrived cutesy moments with pet animals.

Also on the team is Benny (played by James Day Keith), who lives on his own and works in a restaurant that’s owned by a jerk named Frank O’Connolly (played by Sean Cullen), who is corrupt and a bigot. Another member of the Friends is Marlon (played by Casey Metcalfe), who is color blind and appears to be an idiot savant, because he rattles off encylopedic trivia and facts about various things. Cody (played by Ashton Gunning), who has multicolored hair, works at a dye factory, is a part-time musician as a guitarist in a rock band, and has to let everyone know repeatedly that he has an active sex life that includes threesomes.

Darius (played by Joshua Felder) doesn’t want to be a part of the team at first, but he eventually changes his mind. Cosentino (played by Madison Tevlin) is the team’s token female. Showtime (played by Bradley Edens) is the team’s tallest member. Craig (played by Matthew von der Ahe) is a welder in a vocational school. The other members of the team are Arthur (played by Alex Hintz) and Blair (played by Tom Sinclair), who are mostly overshadowed by the louder and more extroverted members of the team.

And it wouldn’t be a formulaic movie about a hardened sports coach who finds his soft and sensitive side without the coach having a love interest. In this case, her name is Alex (played by Kaitlin Olson), who is in the movie’s first scene, which shows Alex and Marcus the morning after they had a drunken hookup. Alex (who is sarcastic and sassy) starts off thinking that Marcus is just a meaningless one-night stand. But, of course, their relationship turns out to be something more, especially after it’s revealed how Alex has a personal connection to someone on the Friends team.

“Champions” has some entertaining basketball scenes and good comedic timing from the more experienced cast members. But the movie is a huge letdown in the way that the team members are often written as buffoonish stereotypes. And almost all of the movie’s jokes (for people with or without disabilities) are irredeemably awful. For “Champions,” the real losers are viewers who lost any time or money by watching this messy and very unfunny film.

Focus Features will release “Champions” in U.S. cinemas on March 10, 2023.

Copyright 2017-2024 Culture Mix