‘National Champions’ needs a little less talk and at least some action

“National Champions” (2021) –  “Get your popcorn ready because this is about to be a good one.”

Yes, in just 72 hours, the New Orleans Superdome will host the College Football Championship. 

The Missouri Wolves, led by quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner LeMarcus James (Stephan James), will face the Cougars and running back Cecil Burgess (Therry Edouard) in a gridiron clash for the ages. 

(Note: the movie doesn’t explicitly state where the Cougars are from.)

With a dizzying array of clips and commentary from familiar sports reporters during the opening, you could cut the air of excitement of director Ric Roman Waugh’s film with a chainsaw.

However, after two minutes, the fanfare ends. 

You see, LeMarcus – the sport’s biggest star and the Miami Dolphins’ future # 1 draft pick – boycotts the big game to hold out for money and benefits for thousands of college football players.  No doubt, these athletes put their bodies in harm’s way during months of practice and 12-plus games a year, but they don’t earn a paycheck despite the NCAA raking in billions in annual revenues.  Sure, the football players earn scholarships and free living expenses for four years, but they don’t receive the slightest slice of the NCAA’s prosperous, posh pie.  As for the NFL, only a scant percentage of student-athletes graduate to the pros.

LeMarcus James (Stephan James)

Student-athletes face an unjust system, and the Missouri Wolves’ QB has lived through enough.  LeMarcus makes his most challenging attempt yet: facing a world of criticism during his biggest moment.

Here’s one more criticism, and it’s a warning to the viewer:  “National Champions” doesn’t feature one play of the big game, as the entire premise circles around LeMarcus’ off-the-field fight with boosters, conference chairmen, other NCAA suits, his coach (J.K. Simmons), and a clever lawyer/hired gun. 

With just three days until kickoff, just about “everyone” wants him to give up this moral stance.  Rather than feature James firing touchdowns on the Superdome turf, Waugh sequesters his lead protagonist and his teammate Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig) in a dimly lit hotel room.  Not just one chamber, but James, Sunday, Head Coach James Lazor (Simmons), Defensive Coordinator Ronnie Dunn (Lil Rel Howery), athletic booster Rodger Cummings (Tim Blake Nelson), and others pop into ordinary conference rooms or other suites as they chat, converse, discuss, and blather about the current stalemate.  

Sure, that’s the film’s point, but “National Champions” might be the most pedestrian sports movie in recent memory.

Granted, addressing an inequitable economic system is an altruistic endeavor, and we should all applaud Waugh and screenwriter Adam Mervis for their message.  Still, I don’t know if a 116-minute cinematic narrative where players, coaches, administrators, and fans stand around and debate dollars is the best use of our time when an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary can flush out the same dispute.

To fill up nearly two hours, Waugh and Mervis break up the monotony with the coach’s wife (Kristin Chenoweth) engaging in an adulterous affair, and James and Sunday recite the Ezekiel 25:17 rant from “Pulp Fiction” (1994), so there’s that.  LeMarcus also nurses a bothersome head cold.  

Coach James Lazor (J.K. Simmons), Bailey Lazor (Kristin Chenoweth), Coach Ronnie Dunn (Lil Rey Howery)

For good measure, we get several drone shots of the football stadium and downtown New Orleans that might spark memories of the frequent San Francisco cuts in Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room” (2003).

Still, let’s not wholly compare this movie to Wiseau’s infamous film.  That’s not fair, especially because “National Champions” creates a miraculous event.  This film turns J.K. Simmons – who played J. Jonah Jameson and won an Oscar for portraying one of the most memorable 21st-century villains in “Whiplash” (2014) – into the most ineffectual coach since George (Chelcie Ross), the high school basketball lead from “Hoosiers” (1986).  You know, the guy who Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) replaced.

Well, at least Coach Lazor isn’t afraid to admit to his bedroom impotence to all his players and staff during a critical speech.  Yea, that happened.   

⭐1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by:  Ric Roman Waugh

Written by:  Adam Mervis

Starring:  Stephan James, J.K. Simmons, Lil Rey Howery, Kristin Chenoweth, Timothy Olyphant, and Tim Blake Nelson

Rated: R

Runtime: 116 minutes

Image credits: STX Films

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