Heart of Champions, 2021.
Directed by Michael Mailer.
Starring Michael Shannon, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Michael Tacconi, Lilly Krug, Ash Santos, Andrew Creer, Lance E. Nichols, Anton Hedayat, Spencer Squire, Jon Lemmon, David James Elliott, and Thomas Kasp.
During their last year at an Ivy League college in 1999, a group of friends and crew teammates’ lives is changed forever when an army vet takes over as coach of their dysfunctional rowing team.
The prospect of Michael Shannon as a late 1990s hardass collegiate rowing coach in Heart of Champions, on paper, looks to be a winning combination considering the often intense and outspoken roles of his storied acting career. And while I would say he certainly gets a few amusing sardonic quips here and there while stressing the importance of teamwork and placing the team inside a series of unorthodox training exercises (one of them sees the team rowing blindfolded to build up their unity for when they are allowed vision), director Michael Mailer (using a script from Vojin Gjaja) somewhat wastes that star power. To a far more frustrating extent, Heart of Champions is no longer even a movie about rowing at a certain point.
While Jack Murphy (Michael Shannon) is saddled with the tragic patriotic backstory to be expected from a war veteran turned college rowing coach (you will understand his staunch teachers of teamwork long before he delivers some blatant exposition), Heart of Champions doubles as a soap opera look at the lives of these college students away from the sport. More than one relationship starts blossoming, and in one case, one of the teammates has eyes for another’s girlfriend. Complicating matters is that one of these players happens to play the most influential position despite serving as a hindrance to the team. Such things don’t matter when you have a wealthy father who can make demands to get his son a better look from Olympic scouts, even at the cost of the team’s success.
There’s also another student and yet another slice of tragedy back story, this one taking the wind out of the sails for the sport; he’s only playing to thrive in college elsewhere. Following a mutual interest in Shakespeare, he too develops a fling with a girl, albeit in a messy situation where there improperly communicate their feelings and the label on their dynamic. He also happens to be a prodigy player in his own right, causing more team clashes.
Naturally, there’s nothing wrong with having these players come from a place of selfishness to pick up cooperation. Sure, it’s the oldest cliché in the book, but it would still be tolerable if the directorial craftsmanship and acting performances were there. Outside of some admirably scenic rowing sequences, these turns are unconvincing, with even Michael Shannon eventually coming across as if he doesn’t care. However, what’s unforgivable and embarrassingly overdramatic is that Heart of Champions excessively embraces the student and relationship drama to an insufferable degree that entirely diminishes any reason to care about the teams upcoming season or their goal of defeating Harvard (it’s also worth noting that the film is executive produced by Harvard educated rowers, the Winklevoss twins, who some people might remember as supporting players in the Facebook origin story The Social Network).
Anyway, the backstabbing and betrayal are played up to such a comical degree with absurd events happening left and right (each one leading to a cloying confessional from one of our protagonists) that Heart of Champions lacks a brain. The worst part is that with every supposedly surprising revelation, the clichés continue to pile up. There’s an enjoyable 15 minutes in here about what it takes to become a unified rowing team. Still, beyond that, Heart of Champions is akin to a theoretical cinematic breakfast of champions in hell.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com