National Champions, 2021.
Directed by Ric Roman Waugh.
Starring Stephan James, J.K. Simmons, Alexander Ludwig, Lil Rel Howery, Tim Blake Nelson, Andrew Bachelor, Jeffrey Donovan, David Koechner, Timothy Olyphant, Kristin Chenoweth, Uzo Aduba, David Maldonado, Reginald Robinson, Tony Winters, Russell Wilson, French Montana, Julian Horton, Mike Greenberg, Tre Hale, Sarah Fisher, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jontavious Johnson, Mark Anthony Brooks, Ned Yousef, Therry Edouard, Malcolm Jenkins, Steven Van Tiflin, and Jaden Begnaud.
Follows star quarterback who ignites a players strike hours before the biggest game of the year in order to fight for fair compensation, equality and respect for the student-athletes.
If anything is setting National Champions apart from the rest of its sports ilk, it’s that star NCAA quarterback LeMarcus James (Stephan James, no stranger to the genre but this time tasked with more of a verbal acting challenge than a physical one) is doing everything in his power to ensure the championship game doesn’t happen. Of course, that is unless his demands are met. Nobly, LeMarcus is taking a publicized boycott and jeopardizing his chances at being the first pick overall in the upcoming NFL draft to take a stand against the exploitation of student-athletes.
LeMarcus’ reasons are numerous and often selfless. His close friend Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig, another recent staple of sports movies) is visibly suffering from an injury and will not have a rags-to-riches future in the NFL. The NCAA makes an obscene amount of money off of championship games, sponsors, and the players’ marketing on nothing more than a stipend for the college experience. Fame doesn’t matter, as these college athletes cannot enter into their own sponsorship deals. And if they face severe injury, the league doesn’t seem too concerned about helping them out later in life.
When LeMarcus meets with a media crew to tape this message, the results are genuinely affecting speech that speaks to issues regarding the NCAA that have been repeatedly brought up for over a decade now. Often, college football is played with more passion and ferocity than the NFL, adding another layer to the justifiable outrage and demands for long-awaited change. Stephan James delivers the speech calmly and composedly, showcasing professionalism and moral integrity, both as a player and person. It’s easy to get on his side while eagerly awaiting how Greenland director Ric Roman Waugh (using a script from 21 Bridges writer Adam Mervis) is going to tackle this thrashing against capitalism.
Such optimistic sentiments practically instantaneously evaporate, as Ric Roman Waugh forgoes treating any of these characters like real people or the situations with a degree of nuance, operating more as a behind-the-scenes series of betrayals and twists that continuously undercut any earnest purpose of the film. Take the casting of J.K. Simmons as the team coach, which sounds like a genius move and does make for some hilarious moments (the media backs him into saying something absurdly stupid and problematic), until it becomes clear that the writing is unable to smartly explore the dynamic between him and his star player in the context of on and off the field. Instead, the increasing reality of him not having his starting players is used as an opportunity to further implode his personal life in ways that distract from the strike.
Several other supporting characters (played by pleasantly welcome character actors such as Tim Blake Nelson, Timothy Olyphant, David Koechner, Lil Rel Howery, and Jeffrey Donovan) as figures with various levels of vested interest in making sure enough players don’t join the strike and that the championship game still happens, that also don’t matter much beyond pulling more strings for the contrived plot. It’s already bizarre that this important story is being told as a fictional one, but exponentially worse at how ridiculous the execution is here. One character flips sides back and forth, offers up some heartless blackmail, and then delivers a terribly overacted speech regarding her perspective. All of this is usually accompanied by swelling, obnoxiously loud score that seems desperate for viewers to care about what’s happening.
Technically, National Champions is tolerable and enthusiastically acted, but more as a football-centric soap opera than anything insightful or thoughtful to say about the treatment of student-athletes beyond what everyone already knows going into the movie. At some point, all the dirt dug up on everyone here stops feeling like authentic retaliation and wholeheartedly becomes a bunch of silly nonsense. It’s no winner.
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