You’ll root for coach Woody — but a slam dunk it ain’t
Champions (12A, 123 mins)
Verdict: Scores points ★★★II
Scream VI (18, 123 mins)
Verdict: Scarily formulaic ★★★II
THE Spanish film Campeones was a big critical and commercial hit when it came out five years ago. Inspired by real-life events in Valencia, it told the story of a disgraced basketball coach who, after being convicted of drink-driving, was ordered to do community service by taking charge of a team of players with intellectual disabilities.
An English-language version seemed only a matter of time, and here it is: set in Des Moines, Iowa, with Woody Harrelson as assistant coach of a minorleague basketball team, the Iowa Stallions. I saw Champions at a gala screening on Wednesday in aid of the charity Mencap, in an audience comprised largely of people with learning and other disabilities. The film got a lot of love from them, so I feel disinclined to knock it.
Directed by Bobby Farrelly in his first directorial outing away from his brother Peter (with whom he made the 1994 smash Dumb And Dumber), it’s a modest crowd pleaser. But from where I was sitting, it sets up a series of emotional slam- dunks without quite scoring any of them.
ATTHE start, Marcus (Harrelson) is a worldweary fellow who believes that he is coaching well below his rightful level, and expresses his frustration by getting involved in an on-court fracas, then driving drunk. He is arrested, and duly fired by the Stallions.
Soon, a judge orders him to spend three months coaching The Friends, a team made up of youngsters with Down’s syndrome, degrees of autism and other special needs.
There are echoes of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), which as it happens also had a memorable basketball scene; and even, as Marcus’s knack with his charges makes him reappraise his professional future, of To Sir, With Love (1967). There’s nothing wrong with cinematic echoes like that. But Mark Rizzo’s script is a little lacklustre and the dramatic conflicts that this kind of story requires, to make the lead character’s inevitable redemption all the more satisfying, feel confected.
Unlike his counterpart in the Spanish film, Marcus doesn’t have wildly offensive prejudices that need correcting, just a predilection for ‘the R-word’ and some misapprehensions about Down’s syndrome, on which he is quickly put straight.
A subplot, with Marcus trying to get one of his former Stallions colleagues to pull strings and get him a job with a top team, is especially feeble. Still, there’s an appealing romance with Alex (a lovely performance by Kaitlin Olson), which grows out of an inauspicious one-night stand and is further complicated when she turns out to be the sister of one of Marcus’s players, Johnny (Kevin Iannucci).
And Harrelson, as ever, is an engaging screen presence. Champions is about as formulaic as a film can be, but it certainly doesn’t lack heart.
■ SCREAM VI is another formuladriven exercise: the latest in the so- called ‘slasher franchise’ that began in 1996.
Like the previous picture in the series, last year’s Scream, it tries hard to have its cake and stab it, parodying the slasher genre (not least by openly referencing Nightmare On Elm Street, Friday The 13th and Psycho) while strictly abiding by its conventions, as a killer in a macabre ghost mask again terrorises the long-suffering Carpenter sisters, Samantha ( Melissa Barrera) and Tara (Jenna Ortega).
As these things go, it’s slickly and smartly done. Courteney Cox reprises her role as TV presenter Gale Weathers, who winds up fighting the terrifying masked psychopath in a cool Manhattan apartment . . . just to put Monica in Friends to bed once and for all.
I also rather surprised myself by enjoying a scene — and this is giving nothing away, since it all happens even before the opening titles — in which an associate professor in film studies, who lectures on creepy movies, is lured into a dark alley and gruesomely despatched. Still, it could have been worse. She could have been a critic.