Woody Harrelson coaches Special Olympics hopefuls with hits and misses in 'Champions'

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Lots of people will find lots to like in “Champions,” a seriocomic story of how young men and one woman, Special Olympics basketball hopefuls with intellectual and developmental disabilities, turn their arrogant coach, played by Woody Harrelson, into less of a jerk.

The setup works in roughly equivalent fashion to how “Green Book,” directed by Bobby’s brother Peter Farrelly, handled racial prejudice and loutish white male redemption in the civil rights era. With both movies, you may find yourself thinking: Are we really focusing on the most interesting character here? Or simply the one who could get the thing greenlit for production?

The film remakes the popular and super-slick 2018 Spanish comedy-drama “Campeones.” (Another remake, this one to be made and set in India, is in the works.) Stuck in Des Moines, Iowa, after being fired off his semipro assistant coaching gig and sentenced to 90 days of community service after a DUI, Marcus (Harrelson) reluctantly takes over a ragtag community center team’s fortunes.

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At first, all is friction and exasperation for our protagonist. Gradually he and the members of the team, the Friends, learn some fundamentals and lower their defenses off the court. I’ve seen the original, though most people who will see “Champions” haven’t; a quick look at the Spanish-language film’s trailer captures its similarities to the remake, even with the tweaks.

No longer a man with an estranged relationship with his wife, Coach Marcus is a lone wolf whom we meet following an expedient Tinder hookup with struggling actress Alex (Kaitlin Olson). She turns out to be the older sister of one of Marcus’ players, Johnny (Kevin Iannucci, terrific), who has Down syndrome.

The neurodivergent characters in “Champions” all get their chances to shine in various ways. But there’s a nagging, patronizing air in the way some of the material’s shaped for sight gags, followed by cutaway shots to a chuckling / dismissive / tetchy Harrelson.

From left, Kevin Iannucci as Johnny, Kaitlin Olson as Alex, James Day Keith as Benny and Woody Harrelson as Marcus in "Champions." The movie is playing at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

There are, however, compensations. Olson, known for “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” keeps her scenes with Harrelson fresh and honest. Des Moines is played by Winnipeg, Canada, and for once in a modestly budgeted studio project you see the snow and the cold and appreciate it; it serves the story. Also, crucially, neurodivergent moviegoing factions are so starved for screen representation, Farrelly’s film is sure to be embraced. I just wish the side characters here weren’t treated as such, and that “Champions” wasn’t mostly about one more coach’s bottoming-out and redemption. Remaking the 2018 movie, the filmmakers missed a chance to refocus things more on the players, and not just in brief montages showing how they’re all getting on in their lives.

On the other hand, one of the people attending a recent preview screening of “Champions” said to his friend, as the credits rolled: “I want to be in that movie!” That’s a super-honest affirmation. There are moments and a couple of scenes that develop some intriguing complexity, including a dinner sequence — Marcus is over for supper at the home of his sort-of girlfriend, her brother and their mother — and the bottled-up feelings finally come out in ways that sound like real life, not the movies (or the rest of this movie, at least). Disarming one minute, baldly manipulative the next, “Champions” is a tricky one. At one point Marcus compliments his players for coping with “the stuff you guys put up with from ignorant people every day,” and while that, too, is well-meaning and rooted in bittersweet reality, the movie itself extends a hand to these characters even as it tells its preferred redemption story.

'CHAMPIONS'2 stars (out of 4)Rated: PG-13 (for strong language and crude/sexual references)Running time: 2:03