Heart of Champions is the type of sports drama that is either a big hit or a huge miss. There is no middle ground when it comes to the world of ultra competitive college rowing. A team of Ivy League rowers keeps falling up short in the big race. The answer is simple: the group does not know how to work together. Coach Jack Murphy (Michael Shannon) is an Army veteran brought in to teach the young men how to be champions.
As sports movies go, it is pretty pedestrian plot. Of course, with this type of story, it is not necessary to reinvent the wheel. Provide audiences with engaging characters, a rooting interest, someone to boo at, and the story writes itself. And for a while, it looks like Heart of Champions may pull it off. Unfortunately, the film never does anything to draw viewers in.
Shannon deserves all of the credit for making the film even remotely watchable. He is a great character actor who is above playing this type of cliched role. That being said, he brings something a little different to Coach Murphy. Heart of Champions did not write the character any differently – he is a grizzled Vietnam Vet who has already seen too much. The wants and lack of needs of a bunch of privileged Ivy Leaguers means nothing to him.
It is how Shannon approaches the character that gives Heart of Champions more bite than it has on paper. He is 100% invested in the part, and manages to bring an air of relatability. Who has not had that person in their life who has coaxed them into taking the next big step? It may seem counterproductive to praise someone for doing their job, but Shannon has been given so little to work with that the part actually ends up showing just how good of an actor he is.
Outside of that performance, there is nothing else to the film. There is infighting, relationship issues, secrets, backstabbing, and more than enough coincidences and plot contrivances to make sure it all makes some semblance of sense. Even setting the movie in 1999 seems to have been done to line up with Coach Murphy’s service. There is not aesthetic value to be found. Heart of Champions follows a predictable route before ending without leaving any impression.
Heart of Champions is playing in select theaters
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