Champions movie review: the young cast is mighty, just a shame this Woody Harrelson film is not a winner

 (Shauna Townley/Focus Features)
(Shauna Townley/Focus Features)

We need to talk about Woody. Woodrow Tracy Harrelson is a fine actor who’s appeared in many wonderful films, but of late he seems drawn to playing one-note parts. You want anarcho-hippy bombast and schmaltz? Damn, he’s your man.

Which is why it’s no shock to see him in romantic sports comedy Champions. We’re meant to come away from these projects thinking, “Woody’s cool!” But his choices tell us something different entirely.

Anyway, we’re in Des Moines and Marcus (Harrelson) is a disgraced, minor league basket ball coach who, in order to avoid jail, is forced to help a group of athletes with intellectual disabilities. This team dub themselves “The Friends” and one of the members has a sassy older sister, Alex (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Kaitlin Olson; a screwball natural), who Marcus has already met (they had an awkward one-night-stand). Alex and Marcus detest each other. Guess what? That doesn’t last.

The script is adapted from Spanish comedy Campeones, while director Bobby Farrelly is one half of the family team behind gross-out gems Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. He’s less well known than his brother (it’s Peter who won the Oscar for Green Book) and, if Champions is anything to go by, Bob’s not on the brink of a brilliant solo career.

 (Courtesy of Focus Features)
(Courtesy of Focus Features)

Champions is the kind of thing people watch on a plane, knowing that even if they nod off several times they’ll still be able to make perfect sense of the plot. A macho malcontent is taught life lessons by adorable underdogs. Yep, that’s what this over-long and old-fashioned drama boils down to. So how come the rating is three stars and not one?

Because the supporting characters are truly disarming and on and off the court, we get to see some spry moves. Best of a great bunch is Joshua Felder as the Friends’ mysterious star player Darius, who takes an instant dislike to Marcus. There’s also Pete Davidson-look-a-like Ashton Gunning, as nervy people-pleaser Cody, and Madison Tevlin as charismatic live-wire Cosentino, who has Down syndrome and is the only female member of the team.

Felder, Gunning and Tevlin are acting champs and in the film we’re not being manipulated or gulled into finding Darius, Cody and Cosentino impressive. They just are.

The film may be meh. Its young cast is mighty.

In cinemas

124 mins, cert 12A