Thunder Road Pictures was probably hoping to score a touchdown with National Champions. Although baseball is officially America’s national sport, football is its favourite. This movie should be a winner. It is based on an Adam Mervis play by the same name and directed by Ric Roman Waugh. It has a strong cast of seasoned actors, an intriguing story line, and a built in group of football fans to draw on. Even this reviewer who knows little about football was looking forward to a few great hours of entertainment, and maybe gaining a better understanding of the intricacies of the game. Where did it go wrong?
The countdown is on for the big game. The movie begins with a large, ESPN-type sports screen. 72 hours until kickoff. The most important College Champion game of the year is about to begin. Fans are arriving from around the country. Careers will be made or lost. NFL contracts are awaiting the outcome of the day. Everyone is pumped up and ready to go. So far so good. The coaches and business partners are working out strategies, and almost counting the money in their pockets. The great A.K. Simmons is Coach Lazor and he needs this game to solidify his reputation as the best. He loves his young quarterback like a son. He knows that LeMarcus James (Stephan James) is the best and that victory is within sight.
But now the plot gets even more interesting. LeMarcus and his friend Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig) are planning to boycott the game. Why would the star quarterback do this? Glory will be his. A huge NFL contract will follow. We’re now presented with a scenario that we would actually like to see play out in real life. James is going to sabotage the game for the most noble of reasons. He will become famous and a multi-millionaire. But his teammates will not be as fortunate. After sacrificing their bodies and talent for this one game they will be forgotten. Broken bodies and with few prospects after college, they will have reaped none of the benefits of their work. Meanwhile their coaches and managers and TV moguls have become multi-millionaires. He wants them to be fairly recompensed for their work and skill.
But now the movie loses the pigskin. Are we playing football or hockey or lacrosse? James and Sunday are mostly filmed in dark bedrooms, plotting how to get their story out to the media without being found. Is this now a spy movie? The coach is sure he can find them and dissuade James of his foolishness. A detective movie now? Sometimes the young men are seen praying and asking for God’s help. But this thread is never followed up. Are they partly motivated by religious conviction? We never find out.
Coach Lazor’s wife (Kristin Chenoweth) now decides to leave her husband for her longtime lover (Timothy Olyphant) who just happens to show up at the hotel where the the team is staying. Will the coach decide to win his wife back or keep his mind on the game? Now we’re watching a B-romance movie. The coach opts for the team and now gives them a “pep” talk speech that we’ve heard every coach give to every team in every sports movie ever. We also find that the lover is really advising James and Sunday on their actions. We’re now into fantasyland.
The final act brings the fabulous Uzo Aduba into the picture. If we can’t persuade the disruptive boys to get onto the field, then we’ll blackmail them. When big dollars are in play this seems like a good strategy. We’re now in a legal beagle movie. And it works. Aduba finds out some devastating information and James gives in. I think. Rather than ending the movie with him suited up on a football field, we are sent back to the dark bedroom to have more discussions.
It’s difficult to see such great plot potential fizzle out in the final frames. It’s difficult to see such great acting not be rewarded with a single vision and great dialogue. If you are a huge football fan, or a great fan of these particular actors, maybe check this movie out.
If not, kick the football into the stands.
National Champions is now available on VOD.