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You’ll root for coach Woody — but a slam dunk it ain’t

- by Brian Viner

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.

 ?? ?? Pep talk: Woody Harrelson, right, leads the Friends team in Champions
Pep talk: Woody Harrelson, right, leads the Friends team in Champions
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 ?? ?? Cutting edge: Scream VI
Cutting edge: Scream VI

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